How Walmart’s PR team uses Twitter

A conversation with the retail giant’s senior director of digital communications reveals how it manages seven different accounts, makes use of promoted tweets, and manages crises.

A few months ago, I did some research for a client that involved digging into corporate PR accounts and finding brand managers who were using them in interesting or effective ways.

One interesting example was Walmart. The company has seven Twitter accounts. I have a few clients who have a tough time managing one—and here Walmart has seven.

Chad Mitchell, senior director of digital communications for Walmart, got in touch with me, and I sent him a few questions about how the company manages its Twitter presences.

Want to see how the PR team of a Fortune 10 brand manages Twitter? Take a look below.

Q. You have seven Walmart-based Twitter accounts your PR team manages, by my count. Take me through the decision-making process to create seven separate niche accounts versus one, larger Walmart account that encompasses all these different areas?

A. It’s really all about content and audiences. When we formed our digital team, one of our first tasks was to better understand our existing audiences as well as the ones we wanted to reach. Through that analysis we learned just how important a channel like Twitter could be for us. Next we looked at our content and developed a strategy for how we would deliver that content to key audiences and stakeholders. As you can imagine, we talk about quite a few things at Walmart, and our biggest fear in using just one handle was audience fatigue. With initiatives ranging from veterans hiring to domestic manufacturing to sustainability, we simply couldn’t manage an editorial calendar covering so many topics.

With that in mind, we originally created a network of six handles. Today we have seven:

@WalmartNewsroom is our official “corporate spokesperson handle” where we issue press releases and other announcements. Perhaps most notably in 2013, it’s also the handle we used to engage Ashton Kutcher.

@WalmartGreen is our channel for talking about sustainability.

@WalmartGiving is where we address our philanthropic efforts. The Walmart Foundation gave over a $1 billion to worthy organizations in 2012 and we give grants in communities across the country so this handle works very well for reaching those audiences.

@WalmartAction focuses on public policy issues and supports our efforts in the communities we serve.

@WalmartHealthy shares news about our ongoing efforts to help customers get fresh and healthy foods without having to pay more. Some of our best performing content has been recipes.

@WalmartVeterans is our newest handle designed to support the ongoing conversation around veterans hiring and other veterans-related issues.

• And finally, @WalmartHub is our “parent” handle and utilizes a retweet strategy where all of the best performing content pushed out from the sub-handles mentioned above is surfaced with our biggest following.

As a side note, @Walmart is managed by our colleagues in marketing and is a handle truly designed to engage with customers on more product- and store-related news.

Q. One issue in creating seven separate accounts has to be resourcing and staffing. How do you go about staffing for these Twitter pages and sourcing the content necessary to keep seven separate pages going on a day-to-day basis?

A. It’s a total team effort. Our digital team is part of corporate communications so we get to rely on an incredibly talented team of writers, media experts, and PR professionals in helping develop content. We also work with a number of agencies, including Raidious and SocialFlow, to help monitor the handles and then develop and optimize content for engaging with those audiences.

We manage approximately 60,000 mentions a day (these aren’t the mundane like “I’m at Walmart,” but are more specific to our reputation and major initiatives we have underway). That takes a lot of work, especially for a small team, so we’re constantly monitoring and analyzing where we can engage in the most meaningful way. Last year was a tremendous year of growth for us with regard to content development. We were much more aggressive in how we treated content development and were much less risk-averse than in previous years. Of course, our job is to protect the brand’s reputation, so not everything we created actually got published, but it’s that willingness to experiment that helps you grow your capabilities.

While we strive to have a robust editorial calendar for each handle, we maintain a great deal of flexibility and can dial it up or down every day depending on what we see our audiences talking about.

Q. You also have @Walmart, which is clearly your flagship Twitter profile (at 445,000-plus followers). This is really your promotional account—you’re promoting Walmart and the products you sell at Walmart stores. However, I see little interaction between that account and the other accounts your team manages. Is that intentional? Can you talk a little about the decision to keep those accounts fairly separate?

A. Great observation. As I mentioned earlier, @Walmart is managed by the marketing team, and the handle is designed to communicate with customers on all the latest hot deals, store information and other merchandising information. There are a number of issues that blur the boundaries between transactional and reputational, such as domestic manufacturing, and in those cases we adhere to a set of protocols designed to activate the most appropriate handles. There are instances, however, where an announcement or event is just so much fun that we all want to get in it, and we might break our own rules from time to time.

Q. Your @WalmartNewsroom account regularly retweets news stories and other tweets (a recent tweet by Governor Tomblin, for example). How do you decide what’s worth a retweet and what’s not?

A. I suppose I’d call it “informed gut.” You start with your instincts, you look at data, and then you make an informed decision. With the amount of data that is now available, I think it would be a big mistake to ignore what the data is telling you and just rely on gut. As we go through the decision-making process, there isn’t one single attribute we use to determine what we’ll retweet or favorite. For instance, we’ll look at the source, we’ll look at tone, we’ll look at the comments that have posted on the original article, and we’ll look at our editorial calendar for the day to help inform our gut. With the sheer volume of mentions we get a day, this process has to be quick, and while I’m sure we miss an opportunity or two to engage, I think we do a really good listening and engaging whenever the op portunity presents itself.

Q. It seems like you’re using promoted tweets fairly regularly with these seven accounts. In checking each account, I noticed a promoted tweet right at the top of each one. What has been your approach with promoted tweets, and have they helped your team achieve results since you’ve started using them?

A. Yes, we use promoted tweets with all of our accounts. Twitter, like Facebook and other channels where we have a presence, moves quickly, and we understand that our messages reach only a small percentage of our followers. Therefore we made a strategic decision to boost what we would consider our most important messages. We evaluate each initiative or announcement and discuss what we might want to promote. We continue to use promoted tweets because they work for us—helping us engage more broadly with customers and critics alike.

Q. Given what happened at Target over the holidays, I’m just curious: How has your team used Twitter in crisis-type situations to date?

A. We absolutely use Twitter during a crisis. Our team works every day to protect, defend, and enhance Walmart’s reputation, and Twitter takes center stage with regard to how it unfolds on social media. Whenever possible, we try to be proactive and use Twitter as one of the channels where we’ll share news, updates, or our response to criticism. As a crisis unfolds, we’ll monitor the situation and look at volume, sentiment, conversation trajectory, and velocity to help us understand how we need to manage the crisis.

Arik Hanson is principal of ACH Communications. A version of this article originally ran on his blog, Communications Conversations.

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