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9 social media mistakes your business must avoid

One errant or rogue post can derail your business's reputation. Learn what not to do from these real-world cautionary tales.

Social media has been a boon for businesses small and large, but it's also becoming a minefield for those unable to manage the increasing complexities of the run-and-gun nature of the beast. On a seemingly daily basis, we suffer through one "Twitter disaster" or another. It's becoming so commonplace that "Twitter disaster" really doesn't deserve to be in quotes.

Damage can occur with incredible swiftness. Although tweets and Facebook posts can be deleted, evidence of their existence is invariably captured and collected for posterity within seconds of their going live. Say something wrong on a social network, and it will haunt you for life.

Don't believe me? Check out these nine all-too-common reasons for failure, all of which involve real businesses being undone by a simple, wayward message on social media.

1. Hand the keys to someone not ready to drive

It's understandable that as a small-business owner you might not want to spend your days tending to the Twitter and Facebook pages. It's a high-effort job that often has minimal bottom-line impact, so it's very tempting to outsource the task to another company or hand it off to a low-level staffer.

Big mistake.

The annals of business will likely record thousands of cases of posts and tweets gone wrong, all courtesy of contractors or staff members who simply didn't know what they were doing. The mixing up of a personal account and a corporate account is usually to blame for this problem. It's how a "social media specialist" posted a note about "gettng slizzerd" on Dogfish Head beer in the middle of the night to the Red Cross Twitter account. And how Chrysler sent out a tweet bemoaning that no one in Detroit "knows how to f**king drive."

The Red Cross actually handled the affair well, playing it off as a harmless mistake. Chrysler, however, went with the unfortunate, knee-jerk response (before fessing up): blaming hackers.

Solution: Ensure that your authorized social media users are properly trained and don't intermingle their personal accounts with corporate ones. Tools such as HootSuite can make managing multiple accounts easy, but they greatly increase the risk of making errors if your authorized tweeters are trigger-happy.

2. Fire the person in charge of social media

Eventually you're going to have to fire someone. How you handle that termination may well determine the way your business will go from that point on--particularly if one of the people getting the axe has the keys to the social media accounts.

HMV, a global entertainment retailer, learned this lesson the hard way when it began a round of layoffs, resulting in a live-tweeting of the "mass execution" by its social media planner, who was among the fallen. It was sour grapes, to be sure, but the tweets also included allegations that the company's management had used illegal interns.

Hey, business isn't always pretty, and sometimes layoffs are the only option. But do yourself a favor and ensure that you've changed the passwords to key social media accounts before said layoffs take place. Managing the way such an event is presented to the world is a critical part of ensuring your company's long-term survival.

3. Confuse a reply with a direct message on Twitter

This one has actually been with us for decades. The original mistake got its start in email: accidentally "replying to all" instead of just to the original sender. Poof, your snarky remark about the president's bad breath just went to the whole company.

We've all been there, but Twitter has compounded the problem. When you send an @ reply to a message instead of the DM you intended, it doesn't just go to the whole company, it goes to the entire world...at least until you delete it.

Endless disasters have gone down this way. Charlie Sheen @'ed his phone number to the world. Economist Nouriel Roubini got in hot water when he unintentionally went public with an intended DM calling a reporter a loser.

Of course, the mother of all DM failures remains the tragic case of Congressman Anthony Weiner, who didn't just send an easily forgotten lewd remark to the universe, but also accidentally distributed a picture of his nether regions.

Twitter long ago tried to fix the arcane problem that made accidental DMs rampant, but the issue continues to crop up due to the simple and common user error of confusing the @ with the D. (A related problem is rampant on Facebook, as hapless commenters sometimes post ostensibly private messages on a contact's public timeline.)

There's no tech fix for this mistake: Smart business owners know that the best practice is to never use social media for private messages at all.

4. Commit rank insensitivity

Corporate America probably isn't the best barometer for good taste, and when you add social media to the mix, things only get worse. Leapfrogging onto a trending hashtag (say, #Kardashian) is a popular tactic to nab a few extra followers, but if the topic is one of a sensitive nature, that tactic can backfire, badly.

In recent months, we've seen American Apparel and Gap get raked over the coals for suggesting that people do their shopping during Hurricane #Sandy, Celeb Boutique spanked for encouraging people to buy its #Aurora dress, and Kenneth Cole get beaten up for suggesting that riots in #Cairo were due to his new spring collection. (For Cole's part, the obliviousness appears intentional. He was back at it again last month with a #gunreform tweet that was related to selling shoes.)

Sure, the Internet is hardly a place where common sense and good taste rule the day, but the hive loves nothing more than to jump on someone who tries to profit from the misery of others. Leveraging (or even mentioning) current events that involve human suffering (or death) simply shouldn't be part of any business's social media strategy, ever.

5. Fail to understand corporate confidentiality

Here's a tip: If you're the CFO of a public company, don't attend a private board meeting and then tweet "Board meeting. Good numbers=Happy Board." That's exactly what Gene Morphis, CFO for women's clothing retailer Francesca's, did last year, promptly causing the company's stock price to spike 15 percent. Such behavior is unfortunately illegal, a practice known as selective disclosure, in which private information is divulged to a few--in this case, Morphis's 238 Twitter followers--instead of to the world at large. A later investigation (after Morphis got fired) revealed a long history of inappropriate sharing on Facebook and Twitter.

Thinking about going public someday? Make sure that you personally follow all of your financially oriented employees on social networks and conduct regular audits to keep tabs on what they're telling the world.

6. Ask for potentially hostile users to chime in

It sure sounds like a good idea: Build some Twitter and Facebook juice by asking those who follow you to write something about your company on the network. Sadly, that concept often doesn't work out--it doesn't matter how many people love you, because plenty of people out there surely hate you just as much, and they follow your Twitter account, too.

Just ask McDonald's, which created a hashtag (#McDstories) and encouraged its use among McFanatics to talk up the burger chain. Of course, the McTrolls got there first, with a flood of tweets like "Ordered a McDouble, something in the damn thing chipped my molar. #McDStories." It's a problem that keeps cropping up, with hashtag hijacks hitting Qantas's #QantasLuxury and luxe UK retailer Waitrose with #WaitroseReasons.

The jury is out on whether trying to invent a hashtag is a smart idea, but remember that once you unleash it, you can't undo it. Ensure that sentiment is squarely in your favor before trying this trick (and perhaps gaming the system a bit by offering a prize to your favorite tweeter).

7. Get political

Savvy business owners know to never, ever bring politics into the workplace. With the country split down the middle on most political issues, even the most innocent of political comments is likely to offend 50 percent of your customers.

But that didn't stop Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy from speaking publicly about his opposition to same-sex marriage last year, which culminated in a war of words across the social media landscape. Chick-fil-A eventually had to distance itself formally from political discourse, but the months-long siege against the company did its damage, with boycotts, lost partnerships, and general ill will that could have been avoided had Cathy simply shut his big mouth.

8. Fail to understand the mechanics of social media

Hashtags, @ replies, tagging--this stuff isn't necessarily easy or intuitive, and it's forgivable if you make a mistake once in awhile. That said, the stakes are higher when you're using social media in a business setting, so it pays to get things right.

Case in point: CVS Pharmacy created a new Twitter account, @CVS_Cares, and asked customers to follow it and provide feedback to the company. The problem: @CVS_Cares was locked, so no one could see its tweets or even follow the account without requesting permission.

Related to item number 4, Entenmann's found itself looking stupid when it tweeted "Who's #notguilty about eating all the tasty treats they want?!" in the middle of the Casey Anthony trial. It's hard to tell whether this post was an intentional attempt to irresponsibly jump on a popular hashtag or just plain stupidity. The company lobbied hard that it was the latter.

Such stupidity was taken to the extreme earlier this week in the already infamous case of Amy's Baking Company. When the business found itself slapped with a few negative Yelp comments and Reddit users started heckling the owners' appearance on Kitchen Nightmares, Samy and Amy Bouzaglo attempted to fight back, primarily via the business's Facebook account--in all caps. Fueling the fire quickly made the problem worse, turning an amusing story that could have burned out in 15 minutes into a disaster that will stand as a case study of how not to engage critics on social media. Understand that hive mind, and do not feed the trolls.

9. Neglect social media security

When in doubt, claim you got hacked.

Although a lot of terrible social media behavior can be blamed on accidents or publicity stunts (including all those "accidental nudes" celebrities so commonly send out), some of this stuff really is due to hacker involvement. Social media security is a serious issue, and phishing attacks that attempt to abscond with your Twitter and Facebook credentials are unbearably common. Lock your business's accounts up tight with strong passwords, and ensure that the only people who have access to the accounts are those who truly need it.

Avoid mistakes with commonsense preparation

Social media is a great communication tool for business--until the communication goes awry, and the mistake is there for everyone to see. Setting sensible ground rules and processes will minimize your risk. After all, you wouldn't want to be the tenth business listed in this article.

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