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How leaders should and should NOT react when social media goes wrong

(ENTREPRENEUR NEWS) When you use social media as a CEO, your brand is always on the line. Even seemingly innocent statements can be taken in an unflattering light.

smartphone typing ceo social media

When your power is tempted

Temptations come from seemingly odd places at times for each of us, but behind every one is an understandable human emotion. So while it may not be ours, we can see how it could seduce another. For example, the temptation that overcame Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman this past week.

Despite knowing his actions wouldn’t be well received, Huffman went beyond mere moderation and actually edited the personally unflattering comments to reflect other users.

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For a website like Reddit, where moderation in the forums has been accused of being uneven at times over the years, an attempt at comment moderation in the midst of a highly-charged political arena should expect to be met with criticism. Earlier in the week, Reddit closed the subreddit r/pizzagate, home of conspiracy theories regarding Hillary Clinton, including, but not limited to, the allegation that Mrs. Clinton ran a child-trafficking ring from a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor.

The damage is done

Upset users went to r/The_Donald and let their displeasure with Huffman be known, vulgarly displayed, at times. Huffman couldn’t handle their commentary, and changed the intended target from himself to the moderators of r/The_Donald. Although the changed posts were only up for an hour or so, and have since been restored to their original postings, the damage was done.

It’s not easy to be criticized when we feel that we’re rightly deserving of the blame, and harder still to be criticized when we know that we’re just doing our jobs and haven’t done anything wrong. However, for leaders, the use of social media to defend one’s self can be a dual-edged sword.

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While using social media platforms is an extremely efficient way to combat misinformation, leaders (and by extension, public relations/communications deputies) must remember to use language that reinforces brand standards. Failure to do so only intensifies the problem.

When resolving a crisis, arguing with the people who feel let down by you or your product only cements their feeling that you’re both incompetent and tone-deaf.

How about another example?

Sometimes the mistake isn’t trying to avoid criticism, but in assuming that your personal social media persona can be divorced from the company you represent. This is a source of frustration for many employees and employers alike. There is predictable friction between wanting to live in the present for all the world to see, and doing so in such a way that your employer suffers no loss of value.

Such was the case for James Andrews, then a vice president at public relations firm Ketchum. Using his personal Twitter account in 2009, he wrote, “True confession but i’m[sic] in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say ‘I would die if I had to live here!’” The town was Memphis, where Andrews was presenting a session on the uses of digital media to FedEx, who famously base their operations there. The tweet quickly spread, making its way to the over 150-person-strong FedEx corporate marketing team, who were none too pleased, and were verbal in their displeasure to senior management. Andrews, predictably, apologized.

How not to apologize

His apology, however, is a good example of the type of apology to avoid when you do make a mistake or have a lapse in best practices with your personal and/or corporate use of social media. “Two days ago I made a comment on Twitter that was the emotional response to a run in I had with an intolerant individual. The Tweet was aimed at the offense not the city of Memphis,” he wrote. “Everyone knows that at 140 characters Twitter does not allow for context and therefore my comments were misunderstood. If I offended the residents of Memphis, TN I’m sorry. That was not my intention.”

Let’s count the red flags, shall we?

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His opening? Not bad. You do have the ability to provide some detail as to why you made the choices you made on social media and wrote what you wrote, and should take that opportunity as you see fit.

“Everyone knows”… things are getting shaky. If everyone knew it, they wouldn’t have taken as immediate of a level of offense that they did, would they? If you’re worried about the contextual capabilities of the platform, either provide appropriate background in the space you have, or pick a better platform.

“… my comments were misunderstood.” We’re sliding away from a true apology here, to corporate-speak. As the author, you own responsibility for writing with such clarity that it is almost impossible to misunderstand what you’re trying to say.

“If I offended… I’m sorry.” And here the shift away from taking personal responsibility is complete!

When it’s clear that people are indeed offended by something you’ve posted to social media, there’s no reason to say, “if”.

All “if” does for you in this context is make you sound like a petulant child who got caught doing something that they knew better than to do. Own your behavior, and say instead, “I offended you, and that was wrong of me.” People are much more likely to forgive you when you take responsibility for your own actions like an adult.

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“That was not my intention.” Words have real power, and your intention is framed by what you wrote. Perhaps it wasn’t the intention to have blowback from experiencing personal frustration, but you’ve got to be aware of it in this era all the same.

When social media goes wrong

Depending on the frequency and the severity, an off-brand use of social media may move from a poor idea to an unethical one. That’s the situation an overzealous defender of the Whole Foods brand found himself in in 2005. Speculation is the trade of internet message boards, especially those focusing on stocks. Poster “Rahodeb” was both animated and opinionated when speculating about upcoming purchases Whole Foods would engage in, especially regarding a company named Wild Oats.

Unfortunately that level of insight wasn’t due to a penchant for prediction.

“Rahodeb” was a anagram for Deborah, the wife of John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods.

Mackey’s message board posts weren’t limited to the acquisition of Whole Foods, however. For over eight years, Mackey took to the message boards to debate customers over their experiences with Whole Foods, going so far as to defend his own haircut when another message board user made fun of it.

The whole affair came to light when the Federal Trade Commission, who opposed the merger, posted “Rahodeb’s” confession that it was Mackey the entire time. Mackey’s comments came perilously close to skirting illegal insider trading, and were unseemly even in the best light.

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The takeaway

When you use social media as a CEO, your brand is always on the line. Even seemingly innocent statements can be taken in an unflattering light, so the old advice of thinking before one speaks is always good to consider for starters.

When you’re always on the stage, your responses don’t have to be rehearsed, but be aware that they will possibly be transmitted far beyond your reach. The audience is always listening.

#CEOAwareness

Written By

Roger is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds two Master's degrees, one in Education Leadership and another in Leadership Studies. In his spare time away from researching leadership retention and communication styles, he loves to watch baseball, especially the Red Sox!

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