In Social Media, There is No “Off the Record”

By Josh Cline

In social media, there is no such thing as “off the record.” And General Electric may have discovered this rule — but much too late.

On March 24, the New York Times published an article stating that GE had not paid U.S. federal taxes on the $5.1 billion in profit last year from its domestic operations. In response, the company’s PR account on Twitter started tweeting about the alleged inaccuracies in the story. (Interestingly enough, all of the tweets that day were on other topics even though the NYT story had just broke. The article was not mentioned by GE until their first tweet of the following day.)

Business Insider has a fascinating article on GE’s Twitter attempt at crisis communications – successful or not, you be the judge – following the report. Some of the themes that I mention are implied in the Business Insider story, so I recommend that you read it before proceeding.

In a prior post on Twitter Crisis Management, we discussed how social-networking websites are an effective tool in media relations (but only as long as it is done properly and integrated with other traditional and online methods):

There are only two ways to do [crisis management] on Twitter:

  1. Influence the media – expose journalists to your stand and get them to cover it
  2. Spread your message – encourage people to spread your messages passionately

Our final goal is to broadcast our line of defense (whether it’s denial, apology, excuse, attack or justification) immediately and get it to the widest audience possible. You can only get your message out there through public opinion leaders, or “Tribe Leaders” as marketing guru Seth Godin calls them.

In just one example, one of the numerous benefits of Twitter is its concision and speed – short messages of 140 characters can be sent within seconds. The nature of the medium in a public-relations context is suited well to the confirmation of facts to journalists. Take a hypothetical example in the context of the GE story:

@ GEpublicaffairs: What was GE’s net-profit from all U.S. operations in 2010?

@Journalist: $5.1 billion

One of the ways in which PR professionals can use Twitter is to communicate simple messages – items like the confirmation of facts – within seconds rather through waiting for hours for reporters and spokespersons to find each other on the telephone. This method is a good way for companies and organizations to help to “control the message” by ensuring that the facts reported by journalists are correct. There are many other benefits of using social media in a public-relations context as well.

However, there are ways not to use social-networking websites like Twitter. The concise nature of the medium makes the communication of complicated – or controversial – messages much more difficult. Miscommunications and misinterpretations are bound to occur.

Here is just one example of a tweet that GE used in its crisis-communication effort:

@John_Hudson Check out Over the past 10 yrs, GE has paid almost $23B of corp income taxes to govts around the world

This is a vague statement – whether intentional on the part of GE or not. What does “around the world” actually mean? Does it include the U.S. federal government? And what does “govts” actually mean? Some outlets reported that GE may have paid state taxes but not federal ones. If GE had hypothetically wanted to hide such a fact, then the tweet using the vague “govts” is indeed accurate (but not the whole story from the reporter’s point of view).

And this is where the improper use of Twitter in media relations can hurt a company. Since only short messages can be sent at a given time, companies like GE will need to send numerous tweets to communicate a single message.

Unprofessional bloggers, unscrupulous reporters, and even inept journalists could quote only a single tweet like the one cited above as “proof” that GE has been giving vague, confusing answers likely to hide the fact that the company has been skirting its tax obligations. After all, not everyone is going to read dozens of tweets by GE and all of the linked reports cited in them in order to obtain the greater context – not when the Internet wants news and wants it now.

Remember the general rule of caution: Everything on the Internet is viewable by anyone in the world. Journalists are not the only people who are going to see GE’s Twitter feed.

Consumers who do not understand public relations and whose only experiences with the company are through their purchases of household appliances may view GE’s Twitter page and interpret the posts as the company’s flailing attempts to offer vague excuses for unethical behavior. And then their image of the firm will be tarnished.

Complicated issues take time to explain, and different mediums are sometimes best suited for that purpose. In addition, non-digital methods of communication allow PR professionals to classify certain statements as “background” or “off the record” – for the benefit of both the journalist and the company.

But as GE found out, nothing on social media is “off the record.” Every single Twitter and Facebook post can be read and interpreted by anyone however he sees fit (even if, unfortunately, it is done so out of the proper context). Everything on social-networking websites becomes part of the “public record.”

Resources like Twitter offer tremendous public-relations benefits to companies and organizations, but only when they are used effectively and as part of an overall, integrated-marketing strategy that incorporates the best parts of traditional and online resources.

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