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Corporate Twitter Account Train Wreck! The 3 Types of Self-Destructive Tweets

Twit happens.

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 self-destructive corporate Tweets, but what kind of tweet it will be, and by whom.

There are 3 types of corporate tweets that cause heartburn (or worse):

Twit Happens #1 – Wrong Pipe

These increasingly common Twitter mistakes occur when the administrator of the corporate Twitter account inadvertently sends a tweet from the company instead of from that person’s individual Twitter handle. As usage of tools like CoTweet (client) and Hootsuite soar, this becomes an ever-more-likely scenario.

It’s 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 6 weeks ago with the American Red Cross corporate Twitter account, when one of their employees sent out this beauty (extra credit in my book for being a Dogfish Head beer lover):

twit happens

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:

American Red Cross twit happensNobody was fired, but I suspect there was a reminder about being careful with corporate Tweets. The American Red Cross has been widely lauded for their deftness in this situation. Read a great post on Tactical Philanthropy from their social media manager Wendy Harman, who gives an intriguing blow-by-blow.

(Note that I LOVE the advice from Beth Kanter in her post on Twitter drama. She recommends that employees pushing out corporate Tweets use different software for personal vs. professional accounts, to eliminate the chance of “Wrong Pipe” Twitter mistakes.)

Twit Happens #2 – Tone Deaf

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 corporate Twitter 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 linkage of Egyptian freedom riots with his new Spring collection:
Kenneth Cole_s Egypt Tweet

Another cringe-worthy one was @UnitedAirlines tweeting the lyrics to the 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’d sent 5 angry tweets within one minute.

Appropriate Response: Well, Kenneth Cole isn’t going to fire himself, and the “Tone Deaf” error is usually void of malicious intent. It’s a misunderstanding and/or misreading of the cultural tea leaves. These kind of Twitter mistakes become more and more common in real-time business as the pace forces companies to use monitoring software that can miss sarcasm and satire.

The answer in this scenario is the Three A’s: Acknowledge, Apologize, Authenticity

As quickly as possible, realize you screwed up; own your Twitter mistakes; and mean it when you say “we’re sorry.” Both Kenneth Cole and United Airlines played the Three A’s recovery pretty well:

Kenneth Cole_s apology

Twit Happens: United Airlines apology

Twit Happens #3 – TMI

This is where it gets sticky, because you’re dealing with judgment and the convergence between personal and professional selves. This is where people misplace the filter between mind and keyboard, or have a different understanding than 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:

Twit Happens James Andrews FedEx

(Note that Andrews’ Twitter handle of @KeyInfluencer is evidence either of sly, self-referential humor – or astounding douchebaggery)

A more recent occurrence was from my friend April Riggs, formerly the community manager for Sweet Leaf Tea. (April and Sweet Leaf were profiled in my book The NOW Revolution)

She used to go by the Twitter handle of @SweetLeafApril and mixed personal musings with customer service and community advocacy. She proudly displays her passion for music, cycling, and having a good time and attracted a following of 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 corporate Twitter account. 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 ad industry water coolers. Andrews was reprimanded, and 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 the 3 self-destructive types of corporate tweets and the appropriate punishments for each? Is termination justified? What would you do in your company?