Twit Happens: Five Cases of Tweet Regret in the Public Sector

Anyone who has been involved in social media for any length of time knows that mistakes can and will happen. When it comes to Twitter, mistakes can proliferate through retweets and replies faster than you can say “delete”, and hashtags can take on a life of their own. However, a hasty tweet or hashtag misfire doesn’t have to do permanent damage to your agency’s reputation.

A case of tweet regret can be an opportunity to turn a misstep into a social media success story when handled right. At the very least, you can quickly move past the incident with grace and humor. Just look at how @EPAwater handled last week’s accidental endorsement of the Kardashian Hollywood game that auto-tweeted on the agency’s account after a fellow downloaded the app to her phone:

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Here are five examples of tweet regrets commonly experienced by public agencies and tips on how to handle them smoothly:

Tweet Regret #1: Hashtag Gone Wild

The NY Police Department learned the hard way that creating a hashtag may be easy, but controlling it can be hard. #myNYPD was intended to be a positive brand building exercise in the style of #McDstories or #IloveWalgreens. Instead, Twitter users co-opted the hashtag to post pictures of alleged police brutality. The media picked up the story and NYPD’s positive PR campaign turned into a PR nightmare. Fortunately, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton handled the incident admirably by acknowledging the response and turning it into an opportunity to have a conversation with the public about their perceptions of the department. His reaction stalled the momentum of the runaway hashtag and allowed him to reframe the discussion.

Tweet Regret #2: Hasty Communication

The immediacy of Twitter can sometimes get agencies into trouble. It is a wonderful tool for getting news out quickly, but the flip side is we can fire off tweets without thinking them through. This happened in Austin during the 2014 SXSW festival when the @austintexgov twitter account invited attendees to call in complaints about interactions with the Austin police department. Naturally, police officers who had been working long hours to protect the public, and who were in no way creating problems, took offense and were “completely demoralized”. Fortunately, the city agency who sent out the tweet was quick to issue an apology, and did so on Twitter where the offence was committed. They demonstrated a tactful recovery by being sincere, responding quickly, and using the same medium to make the apology.

Tweet Regret #3: Failure to Communicate

Sometimes agencies hold back when they should be leading the conversation. For example, during the swine flu outbreak of 2009 rumors started flying on Twitter regarding germ warfare and contaminated meat. Instead of stepping in to squash these rumors, government health organizations stayed quiet as the misinformation continued to spread. Fortunately, this tweet regret is becoming less common as agencies increasingly embrace Twitter to communicate during disasters. The US House of Representatives set a precedent by passing the Social Media Working Group Act of 2014 — a bill designed to include social media strategy for communicating with the public in the event of a terrorist attack. Forward thinking agencies of all sizes should include a social media communication strategy in their disaster preparedness plans.

Tweet Regret #4: Getting Hacked

Getting hacked stinks, but how you react is what matters in the end. When the Associated Press Twitter account was taken over in April of 2013 and hackers falsely claimed that explosions had occurred at the White House the item was retweeted over 3000 times before Twitter took the account offline. Within minutes, the Associated Press leveraged its other Twitter accounts to discredit the false tweet and report the hacking. The best course of action is to remove the unauthorized content as quickly as possible, and do everything you possibly can to notify your audience of the situation.

Tweet Regret #5: Employee Gone Rogue

Employees make mistakes. Sometimes they are honest mistakes, as in the @EPAwater example above, and sometimes the intent is more nefarious, as in the case of Jofi Joseph. In 2011, this White House national security official set up the Twitter account @NatSecWonk that became famous for criticizing the administration and many of Joseph’s own colleagues. The White House acted appropriately by firing Joseph and letting him take full responsibility for what he’d done, but it is even more important to establish clear policies and properly train employees from the start.

For a more in depth analysis of these tweet regrets and how to handle them, download the complete ArchiveSocial white paper “Twit Happens: Tweet Regret in the Public Sector” here.

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