It’s been an interesting week in the Twittersphere, with a number of incidents of companies behaving badly—culminating with the spectacular #Twitterfail from US Airways of a Tweet so inappropriate we aren’t even going to link to articles about it.

Also this week was American Airlines’ perfectly appropriate response to a Tweet that appeared to describe a terrorist threat. The company Tweeted that it would turn the threat in to the FBI, which led to the arrest of a 14-year-old girl in the Netherlands, and has now led to dozens of copycat terrorist threats from other aggrieved teens.

In another incident, Uber’s New York general manager chided a customer, over Twitter, when she reported a complaint, also over Twitter, and called down the wrath of Twitter on his head.

Ironically, this is all happening against a backdrop of Twitter becoming more, dare we say it, respectable, even corporate, than ever. For example, after giving public companies permission to release material information over social media last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) now also allows financial advisors to promote client reviews  of their businesses that appear on third-party social media sites, and include links to those sites. Companies have also been soliciting questions on their earnings calls via Twitter. In addition, the SEC has released guidance on how organizations can use social media sites such as Twitter to solicit investors in crowdfunding projects.

Numerous industries are using Twitter on a regular basis, not just for promotion but also for customer service. In fact, a month before the infamous US Airways Tweet, the Washington Post named the airline industry among the industries reported to be using Twitter most effectively. Customers are communicating with airlines over Twitter, even when the airlines’ websites are down and phone lines are busy, writes Andrea Sachs. A number of airlines have dedicated social media agents—135 in the case of KLM—who follow Twitter, look for customer service issues, and handle them. One United worker quoted in the story said 80 percent of the problems can be handled right there in Twitter.

So just giving up on Twitter is not a solution. Numerous C-level executives, in fact, credit social media sites such as Twitter with making them better at their jobs.

The other aspect of this week’s kerfuffle to point out is that, unlike in some previous incidents, these aren’t employees going rogue. These are the people behind the official company Twitter feeds—or, in the case of Uber, the area’s general manager—screwing up. So how is this happening?

  • More companies are using Twitter than ever before, and employees are using it for both personal and business purposes, which means sometimes accidents can happen. Remember when we first got email and we accidentally emailed a personal letter for a friend, or an internal memo, to the entire company? Remember how we laughed? (Well, maybe not.) In the case of US Airways, the airline’s social media customer service staff was handling an average of more than 400 Tweets a day, which is how some hapless customer service rep accidentally included a picture from a joke Tweet, posted about half an hour before, in a Tweet to a customer.
  • Companies are using Twitter and other social media sites more heavily than ever—and Tweets are now being sent from top executives. (For example, the SEC rule on material information was changed after a Facebook post from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings revealed what was determined to be material information.) CEOs, to put it kindly, are not always technologically savvy and don’t always get the difference between, say, a Tweet and a DM.
  • More people, including the media, are using Twitter, so there’s a larger potential audience for a screw-up. “If you are a representative for a potentially world-changing company with a something of a reputation for PR gaffes, Twitter's microscope is a very, very easy place to publicly screw yourself,” writes Fast Company of the Uber incident.
  • Ultimately, screw-ups happen, and what might matter the most is not the screw-up itself but how your company responds to it. In the case of US Airways, the errant Tweet spawned a thousand jokes and, who knows, might even end up elevating the company’s image in the long run. (Notably, the company was praised for announcing it would not fire the staffer who made the Tweet in question, calling it an honest mistake.)

What’s going to be a larger problem is if incidents such as the fake bomb Tweets become more common, whether they’re simply pranks or people who are actually paid to disrupt Twitter or a company. For example, in the case of financial advisor recommendations, advisors are warned that some recommendation sites have been criticized for having false positive—or false negative—reviews, which the advisors wouldn’t be able to delete, according to the SEC.

In fact, as many as 20 to 25 percent of Yelp reviews may be fake, writes Investment News. “Is the SEC prepared to start monitoring sites such as Yelp to make sure that unscrupulous advisers aren't rigging the system to attract more clients?” writes the site in an editorial. “And if such an adviser can pay to have a positive review posted, would he or she also pay for a fake review that is critical of a competitor?”

Similarly, while Twitter-based airline customer service is working for now, what happens if people start Tweeting fake complaints? In the same way that spam has damaged the ability to use email, despite tools to prevent it, fake Tweets could make it more difficult for companies to use the platform to interact with their customers. Unfortunately, increased respect and attention to social media can cut both ways.

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