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To tweet or not to tweet?
As companies flock to Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to tout their brands, many businesses are still struggling to strike the balance between immediacy and the need to exercise enough control to prevent ill-advised posts, tweets and other social media embarrassments.
A pornographic picture recently sent from US Airways' official Twitter account is a fresh example of a social media misstep. In that instance, the company says an employee didn't mean any harm, but mistakenly posted a picture of a naked woman playing inappropriately with a toy plane.
Examples of embarrassing posts on official company social media accounts are legion: a reference to "hitting the hay" during a horse-meat scandal, a glib mention of "not being able to tell the truth" and posts making light of airplane crashes, to name just a few.
Separately, the actions of individual employees using their own social media accounts sometimes have brought unwelcome attention to their employers. Perhaps the most infamous example of 2013: the public relations professional who turned to Twitter to write, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
Where being quick on the trigger can be risky, there is an upside to a timely post.
Gordon Fowler, president and CEO of 3fold Communications in Sacramento, Calif., said a quick response to a pop-culture phenomenon can bring much more exposure to social media messages that would otherwise go unnoticed.
"People are trying too hard to be relevant," said Fowler, who recently invited people to get over the sourness of tax day by visiting the company's "Tax Day Bitter Bar" for a lunchtime lemonade. Guests were then invited to take pictures and share them via social media.
The three most popular U.S. social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — were conceived and continue to serve primarily as platforms for millions of individuals to connect, but more and more businesses are using them to reach customers. Some 93 percent of marketers use social media to reach a vast and growing audience, according to statistics compiled by social media expert Erik Qualman. More than 1 billion people use Facebook, while Twitter boasts of 115 million active users monthly.
Local communications professionals agreed that staying out of the social media pool is not an option.
"Social media or new media has become a big part of my business. If you don't have a social media presence, then you don't really have a presence," said Doug Elmets, a veteran communications consultant and owner of Elmets Communications. "It's the way people communicate these days."
"Nowadays consumers are talking to each other, so it's important to be in that conversation," Fowler agreed.
Fowler and Elmets differ somewhat, however, when it comes to how much control they think businesses should exercise over who should post on their behalf. Fowler suggested brands stay most nimble by placing social media tools in trusted hands and trusting them. At his company, nearly half of his 16 employees have access to the corporate Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Vimeo accounts. He advises his clients to have defined roles and responsibilities, distinct areas of focus for social media channels and clear guidelines.
While Elmets agrees that social media relevance requires capturing the moment, he says it's often better to sacrifice some timeliness for clarity of message.
"If you don't have some form of oversight or a catalytic converter, there is no telling what is going to spew out of the tailpipe," Elmets said. "Sacrifice nimbleness for a tad bit of security. It's better to be safe than sorry in your communication, especially for your business."
But being nimble is often the key to scoring a social media win, Fowler said. He cited the advertising response of the maker of Oreo cookies to the 2013 Super Bowl blackout.
Advertising experts declared that Nabisco "won the marketing Super Bowl" with a timely ad sent out via social media during a third-quarter power outage that delayed the game. "Power out? No problem," said the Twitter ad. Attached was a picture of an Oreo with the caption: "You can still dunk in the dark."
Within a day, the Oreo tweet had been retweeted 15,000 times and had 20,000 likes on Facebook, allowing it to reach an audience hundreds of times larger than the company's base of followers.
For tweets like that to pop, they have to hit the Twittersphere at the right time, Fowler said.
"The more approvals you have built in [before you post], the less relevant you are," he said. "I just want to make sure I have the right people that understand our strategy with their hand on the button."