Social media: Enter the Twitterati

Thanks to the Twitterati, a publicity crisis is never more than 140 characters away.

When popular Utah-based blogger Heather Armstrong had problems getting her brand-new Maytag washing machine to work, she turned to Twitter. “That brand new washing machine from MAYTAG? That someone has been out to fix three times? STILL BROKEN. DO NOT BUY MAYTAG,” she posted.

It was a public-relations nightmare. Her tweet reached more than 1.4 million followers. It took Maytag only a day to respond and three more to fix the appliance. But in the meantime, competitor Bosch stepped in to offer Armstrong a free washer, which she tweeted about, suggesting it be donated to a local shelter.

The incident served as an important lesson to brand managers everywhere: with the advent of the Twitterati, a public-relations disaster is only ever 140 characters away. Moreover, your loss could be your competitor’s gain. “Twitter provides instant feedback for brands, and that can mean both positive and negative things,” says Leona Hobbs, director of communications for Toronto-based Social Media Group. “It’s important to listen and monitor what is being said, because you’ll be able to act on things early, which is key.”

In particular, celebrities and public figures with huge Twitter followings like Armstrong’s have real power to affect brands. Earlier this month, rock royalty Kelly Osbourne used Twitter to post photos of burns she allegedly sustained after using Impulse body spray. She urged her fans not to buy the product. Impulse won’t say how sales have been affected by Osbourne’s posts, but the story was picked up by the mainstream media and garnered enough attention that its parent-brand, Unilever, publicly expressed sympathy for Osbourne’s “experience.”

But it’s not only celebrities using Twitter to express brand displeasure to great effect. This summer, a Rhode Island franchise of Tim Hortons planned to provide coffee for an event sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage, which also happens to oppose same-sex marriage. Interest groups fired off tweets — some containing false rumours and information — which spread fast and furious. Before long, Tim Hortons used its U.S. Twitter account to post a link to a press release announcing it had backed out of the event — but not before hundreds of users threatened to boycott the coffee chain and accused the company of homophobia.

For companies that enter the world of Twitter voluntarily, figuring out how to use it to advantage is still a trial-and-error proposition. Earlier this year, for instance, Nissan launched a social media campaign to give away 50 free Cube cars. The idea was to use Twitter as a way to builddirect relationships with contest participants, but it wasn’t long before contestants began complaining about Nissan’s relatively slow response time to their tweets.

“People were very highly engaged and passionate,” says Catherine Green, marketing manager of Nissan Canada. “They wanted their questions answered immediately on Twitter.” But the company felt it would be wiser to use e-mail to solve problems, rather than opening up the discussion online. “The biggest challenge was that we live in a corporate nine-to-five world, and Twitter is 24/7,” says Green. “You have to listen right away. You don’t control the conversation, you handle it any way it goes.”

Even though Twitter presents major challenges for business, Hobbs argues it can’t be ignored. “If a company is reluctant to get into a space [like Twitter], a crisis might force them into it,” she says.