"You're Fired": The top 5 risks of using Twitter

(Caution: Contains examples that may be offensive to some)

Used properly, Twitter can be a powerful tool for connecting with clients, prospects, friends fans and just about every possible stakeholder group. But there's no shortage of cautionary tales about celebrities, politicians, companies and ordinary tweeps who've been publicly embarrassed (or worse) over a stupid tweet.

Think it couldn't happen to you? Think again. Social media is dynamic, fast-paced and fickle. And it can be challenging to anticipate how a comment, update, photo or joke might be perceived. In the past, when you made a stupid comment in the office, it might have resulted in a few odd looks from colleagues. Now, thanks to platforms like Twitter, errors in judgment are on display for the whole world to see within milliseconds -- and they can spread like wildfire.

With that in mind, here's a look at 5 of the more serious (yet completely preventable) risks of using Twitter, along with tips on how to avoid becoming the next social media casualty:

#1: The 'Wrong Channel' Tweet

This is when someone inadvertently sends a tweet from the wrong Twitter account. It's an increasingly common occurence as more and more people assume responsibility for multiple Twitter accounts (e.g. your personal vs your work account or for agency folks who handle multiple clients' Twitter accounts). And while tools like TweetDeck and Hootsuite are great, their ability to let you manage multiple accounts simutaneously makes it easy to fall victim to the 'wrong channel' tweet.

So...let's say you send out an expletive-charged tweet complaining about the shoddy service you're receiving at a local restaurant. Only you forgot that you were still logged in under one of your clients' accounts. The tweet goes out to their 14,673 followers. Raised eyebrows, retweets and screen caps ensue. You get a panicked call from the client, who wants to know what-the-bleep is going on. You race to delete the offending tweet. But alas...the damage has already been done.

If you're fortunate enough to have a client who is extremely understanding and has a good sense of humour, your wrong channel tweet can be an embarrassing learning experience. If they're not so understanding, however, you may have put the client account and/or put your job in jeopardy.  

One of the most infamous 'wrong channel' tweets took place in early 2011 when Gloria Huang (@riaglo), who thought she was sending a tweet from her personal account actually sent it through her employer's account. As a result, the 418,330 followers of the American Red Cross were treated to the following tweet:

 When she discovered her mistake, Gloria quickly sent out the following tweet:

To its credit, the Red Cross handled the situation well, sending out the following tweet in response: 

There's more to the story. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, the company mentioned in the rogue tweet, encouraged its followers to donate money to the Red Cross. Many of them heeded the call and donated funds to the organization, with several people saying they were donating because the Red Cross handled the bungled tweet so well. 

 This story had a happy ending. But many others don't. Around the same time as the Red Cross's 'wrong channel' tweet, a contractor for Chrysler accidentally posted an obscene tweet from the brand's official account. Thinking he was tweeting from his personal account, Scott Bartosiewicz sent out this beauty:

Shortly thereafter, Bartosiewicz was cut loose by his company, New Media Strategies. But not even sacrificing their employee would be enough to save the account, as Chrysler decided not the renew its contract with the agency.

Solution: One way to avoid becoming a wrong channel tweeter is to double and triple-check the account you're using before you hit 'tweet'. But the only surefire way to avoid making this common mistake is to use separate software for posting personal versus client/professional tweets. It might be a bit more cumbersome, but using separate platforms helps make this mistake a virtual impossibility.

#2: Tone Deafness

Kenneth Cole faced a huge backlash after tweeting that the Arab Spring protests in Cairo were sparked by the company's new spring collection -- complete with a link to their online store. 

The error in judgment sparked a flurry of negative media stories and forced the company to issue an official apology to appease offended customers and observers.

Solution: The ability to comment on current events is one of the great features of Twitter. But if you fail to show proper judgment or sensitivity, prepare to face Twitter's wrath. Not every item on the evening news is going to lend itself to a full-out marketing push. Before sending out a tweet, do a quick 360 degree check to assess whether you might be demonstrating tone deafness by inadvertently offending your audience. Imagine how you might react if the tweet came from another organization or one of your competitors. If any part of you wonders whether you're going too far, it's probably a tweet that's best deleted. 

#3. Too much information

This should go without saying. But too often, people seem to forget that Twitter is an open forum and anything they tweet is forever in the public domain. Even if you 'protect' your tweets so only approved followers can read them, or delete messages after posting, there are ways to find archived content or gain access. 

Take the example of actor Rob Lowe, who recently found himself at the heart of an online stream of hate after implying in a tweet that Winnipeg, Manitoba (where he was filiming a movie) is a 'hellhole'. 

In the wake of the resulting Twitter and media firestorm, which included comments from Manitoba's Premier Greg Selinger, Lowe made nice with tweeting that he would try to find a better sports bar next time out.

Solution: Never tweet anything that you wouldn't want to see posted on a billboard in the middle of town. 

#4. Offensive content 

You never want to be the person who attracts negatlive publicity because of a tweet. Case in point: During the earthquake and tsunami crisis in Japan, comedian Gilbert Gottfried tweeted a string of 'jokes' that struck many as being extremely tasteless and offfensive:

Is Gottfried (or anyone else, for that matter) entitled to say whatever he likes on platforms like Twitter? Sure. But if your employer feels your tweet has reflected poorly on their brand, it's well within their rights to take appropriate action. At the time of his off-colour tweets, Gottfried was employed as the voice of the Aflac Duck, earning six figures a year for his voiceover work. Despite Gottfried's statement of apology in the following days, the company parted ways with the comedian.

Solution: Freedom of speech is your right. But if your Twitter activity reflects poorly on your employer, don't be surprised if you find yourself handing in your pass-card and cleaning out your desk.

#5. Public tweets vs. direct messages

Where to begin? How about with once-rising U.S. political star Anthony Weiner, who is now infamous for inadvertently tweeting explicit pictures of himself to the world? Of course, that wasn't his intention; he was trying to send a direct message to another user (not his wife, but that's another story). After several weeks of unrelenting media coverage and political pressure, the aptly-named liberal hero and would-be Mayor of New York was forced to resign from politics. Now, his legacy is a Wikipedia page dedicated to the scandal. 

Solution: Just because something exists doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea for you to use it. Unless you're conveying the tamest and most mundane information, your safest bet is probably to avoid using Twitter's direct message function altogether. Use email or a text message instead. There's just too much at stake if you slip up, including offended colleagues, clients, competitors, spouses...you get the idea.  

Connect with Warren Weeks on Google+