Taming Twitter Did They Really Just Say That

By Michelle Rafter

Mar. 15, 2009

Perhaps by now you’ve heard of the PR guy whose snarky comments about Memphis, Tennessee, to his Twitter followers landed him in hot water with the Memphis-based client he was about to visit, a little company named FedEx.

    Or the congressman whose Twitter posts during a secret trip to Iraq had military officials worried he had compromised the mission’s security.

    And then there’s the very public and very profane exchange between a Canadian journalist and a product-marketing executive.

    As those instances show, organizations are using Twitter for almost anything and everything, often with unintended or even disastrous consequences. The social networking service, which lets people post messages 140 characters at a time to a circle of online friends, has grown so big so fast that it has outpaced companies’ efforts to create user guidelines—or in some cases understand what it is and how it works.

    If this sounds familiar, it should.

    Companies have covered this ground before, first with e-mail, then the Web and more recently with social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. In each case, advances in electronic communications forced organizations to decide what employees could or couldn’t do and revise corporate conduct guidelines or acceptable use policies accordingly.

    Although it’s still small compared with social networks like MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn, Twitter is catching on fast. The 2-year-old service grew 900 percent in 2008 to approximately 6 million users, according to company officials and Internet industry analysts.

    Given the avalanche of things HR departments are dealing with right now—a recession-induced talent upheaval and a new U.S. president intent on revising workplace rules and regulations—they’re not investing lots of energy worrying about Twitter, says Jason Averbook, CEO at Knowledge Infusion, the Minneapolis HR management consulting firm.

    “They’re slammed to the gills just trying to survive, and writing a guide to social media isn’t on top of their to-do list,” he says.

    Maybe it should be.

    Because of how it works, Twitter can spread information exponentially faster than e-mail or blog posts.

    Think of Twitter as a giant chat room, but instead of person-to-person conversations, with a mouse click one person can instantly beam a message to however many Twitter users have signed up to “follow” them, whether that’s 20, 200, 2,000 or more. Any of those people can rebroadcast, or “retweet” the original message to their own network and so on and so on.

    Its viral nature makes Twitter powerful but also dangerous, says Michael Krigsman, CEO at Asuret Inc., a Boston IT consultant, and author of the IT Project Failures blog.

    “If a company does well, the positive effect can happen more rapidly than e-mail,” Krigsman says. “If a company doesn’t do something or isn’t responding to customers, the possibility of negative spiral is far greater too.”

    Some companies have responded by blocking employees’ access to Twitter with the same software they use to block gambling, pornography or other sites they’ve determined could hamper productivity or be perceived as harassment.

    But social networking experts agree that blocking Twitter will backfire.

    “It’s a hopeless battle,” says Steve Boese, an adjunct professor at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology who teaches an HR IT course in the school’s HR master’s degree program. “You can issue blocks but you’ll be blocking more and more. It’s a game, and eventually you’ll give up.”

    Besides, social media and HR experts say, there’s nothing stopping an employee from using Twitter to talk about work from their home computer or personal iPhone.

    Some companies have taken the offensive and tapped designated employees to act as their official eyes and ears on the network.

    Comcast, for example, has at least a half-dozen customer service and public relations representatives on Twitter fielding customers’ questions and complaints about the company’s telephone, cable TV and Internet service. UPS, Bank of America, Wachovia, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks and Zappos, the online retailer, all have official corporate accounts on the network for customer service, marketing or both.

    At Yahoo, 25 to 30 employees act as the Silicon Valley tech giant’s official Twitter representatives. Many are product or community managers who get paid to spread information about new Yahoo products and services.

    In early February, Nicki Dugan, a Yahoo corporate communications senior director, became the official corporate voice of Yahoo on Twitter.

    But even tech-savvy companies like Yahoo haven’t sorted everything out.

    Although Yahoo employees have used Twitter in an official capacity for at least a year, the company has yet to revise 4-year-old employee electronic communications guidelines to include the new service.

    The only update has been a wiki Yahoo engineers created in 2008 to share advice on handling complaints customers post on Twitter.

    It’s definitely time for more, Dugan says.

    Although Yahoo hasn’t encountered problems, company officials are discussing creating a separate wiki to spell out Twitter best practices, and are also talking about ways to use Twitter for customer service, she says, adding: “We need to formalize it.”

    Having an electronic communications policy or employee-conduct guidelines that cover Twitter won’t mean much if employees don’t know they exist, according to HR and social media experts.

    Guidelines should be spelled out during new employee orientation. They should also be available in handbooks and online in multiple locations, such as on an internal company blog or on its HR employee portal.

    Most important, make sure employees realize Twitter is a public forum, says Krigsman, the IT failures expert.

    Employees may think they’re posting about minor company events, but you had better believe that competitors are out there, hanging on their every word. Says Krigsman: “Twitter is a competitive-intelligence dream tool.”

Michelle Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with