How to avoid a Twitter crash landing

 Photo: istockphoto.com

Photo: istockphoto.com

A lot can happen in a few years. Not too long ago, most company executives thought Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were annoying websites their kids used to take pictures of their meals.

Of course, they were partially right.

But those social media platforms also provide an unprecedented opportunity to connect with customers and directly engage with clients like never before.

Now, many companies have come around to the idea it might not hurt to check out what this whole “social media” thing is about. (You can imagine these same people, circa 1997, asking “What the *#&$ is an ‘email’.)

So up goes the Facebook page. The Twitter handle is created.

For all companies, the tricky part is what happens next. Social media means that, for the first time, companies aren’t simply shouting their message through a bullhorn. Now, customers can answer back. Or start their own conversations about what they think of your company and brand.

It can be an unsettling prospect. And with good reason. We’ve all seen the cringe-inducing stories about the companies that use a natural disaster to promote a big sale or the employees who use the company Twitter account to voice their grievances with the world

So what do you do? You can’t simply turn social media off: the conversation is happening, whether you are present for it or not. But even a well-intentioned and well-thought-out campaign can quickly go off the rails once it’s out there for Twitter users to see.

Fortunately, there are several important ways companies can use social media while ensuring their strategy doesn’t become the latest example of a #PRfail.

1. Anticipate the negative

When McDonald’s created a hashtag asking Twitter users to share their #McDstories, they probably imagined parents describing the first time they took their kids to get a Happy Meal. What they got instead were unpleasant stories. It was an example of how easily social media campaigns can go wrong.

So how to avoid such a situation? After the social media plan has been created, invest the time and energy into imagining all of the ways social media users, who don’t have a vested interest in your company, could mock it, twist it and use it to make your brand look bad.

McDonald’s Canada clearly learned that lesson because their next major social campaign was a massive success. “Our food. Your questions” actually invited online users to submit queries about McDonald’s food, no matter how controversial they might be. And the public didn’t disappoint. McDonald’s was asked about the ingredients in their food, whether anti-vomiting medication is added to their products and if 100 per cent beef is just the name of a company, not what goes into the company’s hamburgers.

The campaign generated a tremendous amount of positive press and was even named as Marketing Magazine's campaign of the year for 2012. It was so successful because it allowed the company to directly address some of the false myths that have been associated with the brand for years. And because the design of the campaign meant that no question was off limits, even the negative ones, the company dramatically reduced the chances the campaign would get hijacked and turned into a PR disaster.

So think about all the ways your planned social media campaigns, responses to customer queries or other online interactions can go wrong. And then think some more. It could make the difference when it comes to preventing potential disaster. 

2. Know who's in the driver’s seat

Can you imagine letting an intern who has been with the company less than a month lead a company press conference? Or a company that doesn’t have a clue who should act as a media spokesperson during interviews? Of course not. So why do so many companies hand over the reins to their social media platforms without really knowing who is in charge?

There have been countless examples of employees who have landed companies in major hot water because of the way they used social media. Of course, companies should have policies and protocols in place that set parameters around how all employees should conduct themselves on their personal Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts. But in many cases, it was the official company pages that were the source of the trouble.

Marc Jacobs found that out the hard way after the company put an intern in charge of its official Twitter handle. What followed was an outburst aimed at the company’s CEO, which actually referred to him as a tyrant.

Twitter represents your company’s official presence on an extremely powerful social media platform. That means whoever is in charge of running the account must be extremely reliable, trustworthy and cognizant of the company’s goals and values. In other words: social media shouldn’t be treated as an after thought.