Business Report

Avoiding Bad Trips in the Twitterverse

Why organizations need some new rules to thwart social-media fiascoes.

Over the summer, Virgin America started a risky promotional campaign, encouraging passengers to use its free onboard Wi-Fi service to tweet good vibes about their flying experiences. The San Francisco-based airline identified 120 influential users on Twitter and offered them all free round-trip flights. The comments were overwhelmingly positive, as expected.

All Atwitter: With his Twitter outburst against referees, entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban prompted the NBA to write a new policy about tweeting before, during, and after games.

But in the business of image making, one nasty post can ripple through the Twitterverse and spoil a whole day. The stakes in social media are higher than with traditional media relations, says Porter Gale, Virgin America’s vice president of marketing. The impact of both positive and negative statements “can easily be amplified because of followers and fans.”

On one recent day, for instance, a semifamous actress named Mackenzie Firgens thanked Virgin Atlantic for the “pretty view to Seattle” and linked her thousands of followers to a picture she took out her window. Stacy Small, who goes by the handle EliteTravelGal, exclaimed: “totally luv my main cabin seat w power, wifi, tv, snax.” But a flier named Darrell Whitelaw snapped a picture of a broken seat that “needs to be fixed.” And AlisonEvents, a wedding and party planner, tweeted about “the worst flight on VirginAmerica”: “plane landed and fire trucks had to rescue us and drive us to the gate. Not awesome.”

The viral nature of social media can turn even the most random, off-the-cuff comment into a broadcast. In the airline world, the most famous example is the case of Kevin Smith, a Hollywood producer with more than a million followers on Twitter. Earlier this year, before the start of a Southwest flight, Smith was told that he was too large for his seat and was asked to vacate the aircraft. He repeatedly and profanely tweeted and blogged about his experience, criticizing Southwest in general for the “fat policy” and the pilot and flight attendant who spoke to him in particular. Even after Southwest apologized, the outrage on Twitter persisted for days.

More and more companies are finding that they must figure out how to deal with the inevitable outburst–sometimes addressing it directly and sometimes ignoring the incident in hopes that the fuss will quickly pass. “There are no rules yet,” says Guy Kawasaki, a tech investor and author well known in social-media circles. “There’s only what works and what doesn’t work.”

Though there’s no way to control what customers and other outsiders are saying, some organizations have imposed policies on Twitter usage for their own employees and affiliates. The NBA is a case in point. During a game last season, the famously outspoken entrepreneur Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, tweeted his irritation at a referee during a game that his team lost: “How do they not call a tech on JR Smith for coming off the bench to taunt our player on the ground?” Ten minutes later, he lambasted the officials again: “Same crew chief from game in Denver where they missed call.”

Days later, after Cuban was slapped with a $25,000 fine for his digital disruption, he poked fun at it. “Can’t say no one makes money from Twitter,” he joked. “The NBA does now.” The episode inspired the NBA to officially forbid all tweeting by players, coaches and owners during games and for 90 minutes before and after.

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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