Five Lessons to Take From Some of Twitter’s Biggest Controversies

Twitter fail

In December 2013, Justine Sacco, the then global head of communications for IAC, ignited a Twitter firestorm after sending out this highly controversial tweet:

As you can see from the retweet count, the comment went viral, sparking people all around the world to submit their opinions on the tweet and it’s author. As this happened, Sacco had no idea – she’d sent the tweet before boarding a plane and didn’t know the trouble she’d caused till she landed, when the barrage of tweets laid into her at 140 characters per sentiment. Whilst the comment itself was reprehensible, that it came from the head of communications from a global brand seemed unfeasable – how could this person not have been aware of the controversy her tweet would spark?

What the Sacco case really highlights is that many people are still not fully aware of the potential ramifications of their comments or actions on Twitter. There are examples of this every week, from a legendary cricketer posting nude selfies to politicians voicing their controversial opinions, we are still seeing case after case of people failing to understand the wider implications of what they post online. Authenticity is important, but representing yourself, and your employers, in a professional way is still something all users need to be mindful of – and writing ‘views are my own’ in your description is unlikely to negate collateral damage from your own, divisive opinions.

With this in mind, it’s worth underlining a few unwritten Twitter rules that need to be noted – a refresher for those with their mouse pointers hovering over that ‘Tweet’ tab, ready to fire off something they’re not 100% sure they should. Are you sure you should be tweeting that? Have you put together an update that might cause a problem? Make sure you check it against these five commandments before you pull the trigger.

1. Thou shalt refrain from using thy brand profile to Tweet personal updates

Use your personal profile for that – or better yet, your personal Facebook profile with relevant privacy settings in place. Don’t share news about your sister’s wedding or some joke you just heard, this is the place for business updates and information relevant to your business followers – always keep the audience in mind. Social media is about establishing connections to foster ongoing relationships – spamming your followers with content they have no interest in is unlikely to endear them to your brand. Also, if you’re in the public eye, or your personal profile has alignment to your brand, maybe avoid using Twitter to send questionable content.

Cautionary tale: Anthony Weiner’s recreational activities

2. Thou shalt reconsider tweeting uponst consuming too much ale

We’re all on social media all the time – your iPhone’s right there in your pocket, waiting to be checked, but sometimes you need to disconnect. Sure, most people can handle their drink and it’s generally not a problem, but just a consideration for those with access to a brand Twitter account. I mean, how many ‘brilliant’ ideas have you had whilst intoxicated that, when sober, have proven to be not so great?

Cautionary tale: American Red Cross ‘#gettngslizzerd’ Tweet

3. Thou shalt confirm thou art logged out of thy brand profile before tweeting

Have you ever sent out an e-mail then noticed that you’d CC’d a person or group you really didn’t want to share that message with? I imagine that feeling is similar to the one you get after tweeting out a personal message from your brand Twitter account. It’s been blamed for a raft of Twitter fails over the years, including Microsoft’s Ann Coultercontroversy. Make sure you double-check where you’re sending from before pressing ‘Tweet’, it could spare you a world of pain.

Cautionary tale: KitchenAid ‘Obama’s Grandma’ Tweet

4. Thou shalt maintain thy awareness of world events and trending topics

An ill-timed tweet can become a major PR disaster. There’s no way to 100% protect against this, but it’s worth checking the trending topics -and confirming the actual stories behind them – whilst also maintaining some awareness of news events to avoid potential mis-associations with your content. Also, be aware of your scheduled tweets. It could be that something you scheduled weeks ago might get sent out at the wrong time and collide with a news event – maintaining awareness is key.

Cautionary tale: Celeb Boutique’s ‘Aurora’ mis-understanding

5. Thou shalt eliminate negativity from thine Tweets

This is one which we should attempt to apply as widely as possible. You remember how your parents used to say ‘if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all?’ Yep, that. In general terms, there is little to no benefit from negativity on Twitter. If you don’t like what someone’s saying on, stop following them. Don’t engage in bashing of competitors or in making critical comments via your brand profile. Your company Twitter presence should remain positive and focussed on your overall Twitter strategy. Sometimes you may have to respond to an unhappy client, but keep in mind that Twitter is a public forum, everything you or your representatives tweet is out there for the world to see. If an exchange is at risk of getting heated, advise the client that you will connect with them in a more private forum.

In a broader sense, social media is a new world, in relative terms, and the ethical boundaries have not yet been set. By working to eliminate negativity, we can create a new normal, through weight of majority, where negative comments are simply not acceptable practice. You can never take back something that’s been said in person, but you can re-read a Tweet before sending. No negativity on Twitter. No place for it. Let’s make that a goal for our ongoing interactions.

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