7 Worst Tweets of 2012

This year businesses fouled up when they posted these egregious, insulting tweets. Don't make these social media mistakes.

This will be remembered as the year business took the social media plunge. More than 80% of executives now believe their brands can get more sales and bigger market share by using social media, according to a 2012 Economist report. But while social media use and ROI have grown, so have social media blunders. In 2012, businesses still learning how to use Twitter produced a bumper crop of embarrassing, insensitive, and incriminating tweets. Here’s a look at the worst ones and how some basic training could have helped.

On October 29, as Hurricane Sandy churned up the East Coast, clothier Gap took to Twitter. What went wrong: After a flood of angry comments from customers, Gap hastily pulled the tweet, then offered a lukewarm apology, saying it only meant “to remind all to keep safe and indoors.” Solution: On Twitter, authenticity and compassion are paramount. Callous ads, particularly those dressed up as safety warnings, are a recipe for a PR disaster. And halfhearted apologies won’t cut it.

During the first of this year’s presidential debates, President Barack Obama mentioned his late grandmother, who died three days before he took office. Minutes later, KitchenAid’s official account made a fatal error. What went wrong: An employee of KitchenAid mistakenly fired off a tweet from the corporate account, rather than his or her personal account, and it went out to KitchenAid’s more than 24,000 followers. Solution: To avoid confusing personal and corporate Twitter accounts, use a social media management system that prompts employees with a confirmation window before they send messages from high-profile handles. Even a simple “Are you sure?” pop-up helps.

This October, Britain’s ambassador to Chile, an avid soccer fan, sent out a tweet in Spanish alluding to a popular Chilean taunt used in matches against archrival Argentina. The offensive chant (translated): “Argentines, faggots, you lost the Malvinas because you are idiots." What went wrong: The ambassador insisted that he sent the tweet from his private account and never meant it to go public. He apologized, explaining that he immediately deleted the message. Solution: Even though tweets can be deleted, they leave an electronic trail that stretches across the web. The right social media management system will include basic training modules to make sure all employees are up to speed on this.

This spring, Gene Morphis, CFO of women’s clothing retailer Francesca’s, tweeted from his personal account, a message that would cost him his job. What went wrong: Regulated sectors, like publicly-traded companies, must abide by strict rules when communicating with stakeholders--even on social media. In this case, Morphis tweeted the results of a board meeting before they were officially made public--a big SEC no-no. Solution: Employees must know rules governing communications. Regulators in many sectors require companies to archive all social messages up to three years, even posts sent from personal devices. Make sure your company has a compliance policy, and a social media management system with built-in archiving software in the event of an audit.

Hours after the fatal shootings in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater this July during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, UK clothing retailer CelebBoutique found itself in hot water. What went wrong: According to CelebBoutique, the individual handling the company’s social media never checked why #Aurora was trending on Twitter. Solution: Use a social media management system that has variable permission settings. Junior employees or outside contractors can be given draft-only permission. Their tweets are then fed into approval queues to be vetted by senior staff before publishing.

The morning after the same incident, American Rifleman, an official NRA magazine, also fumbled. What went wrong: According to an official spokesman, the offending tweeter was “unaware of events in Colorado.” But I’d bet this tweet was scheduled in advance--written well before the shooting as part of a regular weekly update, then sent out automatically using a Twitter tool the morning after the tragedy. Solution: Never put your social media on autopilot. Scheduling features offered by social media management tools can be an extraordinary timesaver, but they have to be used intelligently. The essence of social media remains real-time interaction between real people.

While on a fashion shoot in Korea, a male model for Abercrombie & Fitch clothing label Hollister tweeted this crude picture of himself. When followers called him on it, he wrote, “Hahahaha they ruhhvvvv ittt!,” further inflaming local sensibilities. What went wrong: In this case, outraged Koreans initiated a campaign to boycott the store. Solution: You must have a social media policy and show it to employees. Emphasize that tweets--even on private accounts--may ultimately reflect on the company. Many social media management systems have online tutorials that hammer this home.

All these Twitter blunders were highly preventable. A little basic training and the right social media management technology could have spared a lot of embarrassment and apologizies, not to mention angry customers, and lost revenue. With the right tools, companies can instead focus on connecting with clients on social channels--and tap into $1.3 trillion in value waiting to be unlocked. --Ryan Holmes is the CEO of HootSuite , a social media management system with five million users. He's in the trenches every day with Facebook, Twitter, Google and the world's largest social networks.

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