As more and more companies ramp up their Twitter presence, the likelihood that something off-message will slip by the digital goalie goes up considerably.
The question is not whether your company will have to deal with a self-destructive tweet, but rather what kind of tweet it will be, and by whom.
There are three types of Twitter miscues that cause corporate heartburn (or worse):
This increasingly common mistake occurs when the administrator of the corporate Twitter account inadvertently sends a tweet from the company account instead of from his or her individual Twitter handle. As usage of tools like CoTweet (client) and Hootsuite soar, this is an increasingly likely scenario.
It has happened to me, as my awesome assistant Jess Ostroff once accidentally yelled at a company from my Twitter account instead of her own.
Most famously, this occurred about six weeks ago to the American Red Cross when one of its employees sent out this beauty:
@RedCross: "Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head's Midas Touch Beer… when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd"
Appropriate response: Because the wrong-pipe mistake is always that—simply an account screw-up—reaction and mitigation should be rational and reasonable. The American Red Cross handled it beautifully with humor and grace:
@RedCross: "We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys."
Nobody was fired, but I suspect there was a reminder about being careful. The American Red Cross has been widely lauded for its deftness in this situation. Read a great post on Tactical Philanthropy from Red Cross' social media manager, Wendy Harman, who gives an intriguing blow-by-blow.
I also love the advice from Beth Kanter in her post on Twitter drama. She recommends that employees managing company Twitter accounts use different software for personal and professional accounts, to eliminate the chance of wrong-pipe errors.
These types of Twitter mistakes are a bit more disconcerting, as you get into questions of appropriateness and poor listening.
The tone-deaf error occurs when the official company account (or personal account of a high-ranking officer) throws up an air ball of a tweet that is outside customary social and societal norms.
Of course the most famous recent example of tone-deaf Twitter self-destruction was Kenneth Cole's ridiculous linking of Egyptian freedom riots with his new spring collection:
@KennethCole: "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo -KC"
Another cringe-worthy incident involved United Airlines' tweeting the lyrics to the closing theme song of Frasier after a customer tweeted:
"Thanks to @unitedairlines I can finally watch that Frasier episode I missed in 1994."
The company entirely missed the sarcasm and frustration of the customer, which is bewildering because she sent five angry tweets within one minute.
Appropriate response: Well, Kenneth Cole isn't going to fire himself, and the tone-deaf error is usually devoid of malicious intent. It's a misunderstanding and/or misreading of the cultural tea leaves. This is going to become more and more common in real-time business as the fast pace forces companies to use monitoring software that won't pick up on sarcasm or satire.
The answer in this scenario is the three A's:
As quickly as possible, realize you screwed up, own the mishap, and mean it when you say "we're sorry." Both Kenneth Cole and United Airlines played the three A's recovery pretty well:
@KennethCole: "Re Egypt tweet: we weren't intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment-KC"
@UnitedAirlines: "Speaking of eggs—they are all over our face! We missed the tone of the customer's tweet and apologize to those who were offended."
Too much information
This is where it gets sticky, because you're dealing with judgment and the convergence of personal and professional selves.
People can misplace the filter between mind and keyboard, or they can have a different understanding from that of their employer about what should be filtered.
The most famous example of the TMI mishap was in 2009 by former Ketchum executive James Andrews, who fired off this gem on the way to visit his client, FedEx:
@KeyInfluencer: "True confession but I'm in one of those towns where I scratch my head and
say I would die if I had to live here!"
A more recent occurrence was from my friend April Riggs, formerly the community manager for Sweet Leaf Tea.
She used to go by the Twitter handle of @SweetLeafApril and mixed personal musings with customer service and community advocacy. She proudly displayed her passion for music, cycling, and having a good time, and she attracted a following of more than 4,000 on Twitter.
A few weeks ago, she was out in Austin at an event series called "Drunk Dial Party" and tweeted:
"Drunk Dial Party fail. Got stood up but made out w/by dude @SailorLegs stood up. Trade-off?"
Appropriate response: Typically, it's censure or worse. It's a tricky situation for the company, because the TMI transgression always comes from a personal account, rather than the official company Twitter handle.
So, does the company send a tweet from the main account, apologizing for something said on an employee account that may have little cross-over audience? In most cases, no.
Ketchum apologized via a statement only after the FedEx dust-up became big news around advertising-industry water-coolers. Andrews was reprimanded, and he eventually left to start his own firm.
Sweet Leaf Tea (owned by Nestle) has never publicly mentioned April's tweet. She was suspended and then terminated. The company deleted the entire @SweetLeafApril account.
What do you think of these three self-destructive types of tweets, and the appropriate punishments for each? Is termination justified? What would you do in your company?
Jay Baer is a social media strategy consultant, speaker, and co-author of "The NOW Revolution." He is the founder of Convince & Convert, a social media strategy firm, and he blogs at the Convince & Convert social media strategy blog, where this article originally ran.