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Even seasoned public-relations professionals who use Twitter can sometime get caught violating what would seem to be rules of common sense. Take the infamous case of an executive at Ketchum, a global PR firm with offices in 100 cities. James Andrews, a vice president from New York, flew down to Memphis to meet with a group of clients at Federal Express. While out at a restaurant, he tweeted his “True confession” that “i’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say ‘I would die if I had to live here!’”

By the end of the day, the opinionated tweet had blogs buzzing, and employees at FedEx world headquarters were demanding an apology from Ketchum. The questions were obvious: Shouldn’t Andrews have known better? Does his personal opinion count for anything–really?

Such high-profile controversies are relatively rare, though. The types of messages that could tarnish brands most often are more like the complaint about the broken seat or the bad flight on Virgin Atlantic. In such cases, it’s best to deal directly with the matter by responding instantly on Twitter itself. “It’s important that the communication and messaging be authentic, real, and honest,” says Virgin Atlantic’s Porter Gale. “There is an expectation with social media that responses be close to real time and 24/7.”

Delaying action is generally considered bad form. “If someone asks a support question and it takes you a week to get back to them, that isn’t going to look good,” says Laura Fitton, who heads One Forty, a directory and community of Twitter apps and users. “Face criticism. Be apologetic if you need to be. People want to see you engaging with stakeholders and listening to their concerns.”

As experience shows, trying new methods of engaging with audiences should not mean letting online fans or followers play havoc with your brand. Skittles, a division of Mars Candy, tried to woo young customers earlier this year by turning its site into a custom Twitter feed consisting of all posts that mentioned the rainbow-colored candies. The unintended result was a no-holds-barred adolescent free-for-all, with visitors posting all variety of silly, inane, and even obscene comments about what can be done with Skittles.

Skittles isn’t the only company that hurt itself by trying so hard to be hip with social media. About a year ago, Burger King launched a Facebook page called the Whopper Sacrifice, offering a free Whopper to anyone who unfriended 10 people and declared it publicly on the site. Encouraging such act of non-friendship is not something that is going to improve any company’s brand image. In any case, Facebook soon shut the app down, although the page still says that “Facebook has disabled WHOPPER Sacrifice after your love for the WHOPPER Sandwich proved to be stronger than 233,906 friendships.”

Such missteps threaten to become more common as social media proliferate. The Ketchum tweet about Memphis, for example, is already known as “the worst tweet ever,” thanks to bNET, a blog that covered it. With a growing body of stories like these in circulation, it’s no wonder that more and more companies are writing new rules.

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Credit: R. Blake Ramick

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, digital marketing

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