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Twitter: The New ‘Golden Rule’

Posted At: October 10, 2011 1:05 PM
by Bailey Carpenter

Tweet, tweeted, Twitter: These three words have constantly been on the lips of business professionals around the world for the past five years.

Since its creation in 2006, Twitter has been firmly established as a critical aspect of business and a necessity in the modern practice of public relations. The positive implications are obvious: PR practitioners can reach a vast amount of publics instantly, and clearly measure the success of their message when it is retweeted or when they gain new followers.

However, as Uncle Ben once told the young Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility” (Spiderman, 2002).

An estimated 95 million tweets circulate Twitter daily, and every Twitter user — especially those who tweet in professional capacities — should be exceedingly aware of the potentially negative consequences of using Twitter in a workplace setting.

Those tweeting professionally should closely monitor what information they choose to send via Twitter, and ensure that their message is appropriate for the medium. It is also important to remember that Twitter is primarily used for communication on a personal level.

Brian G. Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston, is a Twitter user (@bgsmithphd) and the author of the Public Relations Review article, “Socially Distributing Public Relations: Twitter, Haiti, and Interactivity in Social Media.”

“One of the most common themes resonating through posts on Twitter is that tweets represent personal insight you won’t find in traditional media [such as broadcast media and newspapers],” Smith said.

This sort of personal communication is essential for PR, which is based on building and maintaining relationships with multiple publics. However, while Twitter may be an appropriate forum for announcing small news updates or promotions, it should not be relied on for more complicated or critical messages.

Jennifer Hudson, an account supervisor for Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, is also a professional and personal Twitter user (@nativeatl). Hudson agrees that Twitter is necessary for PR, but it cannot be the sole method for reaching publics.

“Twitter is just one tool PR professionals have for sharing clients’ stories and it should always be part of a larger communications program that includes traditional media (e.g., CNN), hybrid media (e.g., Huffington Post), social media (e.g., Twitter) and owned media (e.g., a company’s website),” Hudson said.

Additionally, with so many messages being processed in Twitter every second, PR representatives need to prevent their message from being overlooked or lost.

“The problem with Twitter may not be whether it is impersonal, but if it’s too informal or even too saturated a place to circulate messages,” Smith said.

Because of the huge flow of information that companies are constantly monitoring and sending out on Twitter, Smith said that a social media “workforce” is necessary for companies to handle their online presence. Also, these workforces can help PR practitioners like Hudson to keep their personal and professional Twitter presences separate.

“In today’s interconnected world, it’s difficult to separate personal and professional lives in general, and Twitter is just another example of that,” Hudson said. “It’s critical that PR professionals understand Twitter so they can educate clients, which is why I initially joined.”

Twitter draws in tweeters who use their accounts for many other reasons beyond business and personal. In fact, a huge driving premise of Twitter has been the user’s ability to follow the personal thoughts and messages of celebrities and ‘public figures.’ Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to PR headaches when these public figures say or do something offensive.

House Representative Anthony Weiner’s recent Twitter scandal involving sending lewd photos over a Twitter feed is a strong example of the way Twitter’s fast-paced movement of information can permanently damage the image of a public figure.

“I hope that as we see the effects of misbehavior and disrespect on Twitter, as we saw with Rep. Anthony Weiner, we’ll see a more heightened awareness for self-censorship and respectful behavior,” Smith said.

Rep. Weiner’s resignation from the House on June 21, 2011, serves as a reminder for all business people using Twitter that it is crucial to remain professional, even when using a personal account. Users should always be aware that once their message is on Twitter, millions will see it before it can be taken down.

“Sometimes people purposely offend others on Twitter in order to generate more publicity because there are still people who think all publicity is good publicity,” Hudson said.

As popular Twitter users like rapper 50cent (@50cent) and comedian Gilbert Gottfried (@RealGilbert) have learned, however, sometimes offensive tweets cause significant and almost instant loss of hundreds of followers. Both users tweeted some less than respectful comments about the deadly tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011.

50cent lost respect and followers as a result of his tweets, and is still dealing with the repercussions. Later he tweeted, “Some of my tweets are ignorant I do it for shock value. Hate it or love it. I’m cool either way 50cent.”

Similarly, Gottfried was fired from his job with Aflac as the voice of the duck in the insurance company’s ad campaigns after he tweeted negative jokes about the tsunami.

As Twitter continues to grow and offer more ways to reach publics quickly and frequently, so does the need for PR practitioners to watch how they use social media sites and maintain a strong, appropriate presence.

Smith offers a ‘golden rule’ for Twitter: “Just because it can be said, doesn’t mean it should be, especially in a message database like Twitter.”

Hudson agrees: “A lesson my mom taught me years ago was to ‘sit on your fingers.’ She was referring to the urge to send a nasty email to someone when you were offended, but it applies to Twitter (and really any social media network) as well. Think before you tweet.”

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