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You may not think that social media is rocket science, but those big brand early adopters are certainly astronauts exploring an unknown quantity. And space exploration is not without its challenges. Or risks.

One intergalactic incident occurred late on Friday as a member of Vodafone’s social media team cut loose and posted a homophobic remark via the company's official Twitter account.

More than 8,500 Vodafone customers / followers received this charming remark in their tweetstream.

I initially suggested that the account must have been hacked, but that was soon denied. It turns out that this was, quite simply, “a severe breach of rules”. I imagine the weekend started a little bit early for the individual responsible.

What happened next was the equivalent of a panic attack, replete with hyperventilation, following the realisation that the network effect was in full swing. Hundreds of retweets ensured that the company’s speedy deletion of the tweet was a redundant exercise. Much backtracking ensued. And ensued some more. Panic! The firm apologised over and over again. And again, and again, and again…

Sorry doesn't seem to be the hardest word when you're an expert user of the copy and paste command...

Some takeaways

Human error will occur. It’s inevitable. It comes with the territory. You need to live with that. It’s how you deal with human error that matters. 

Some errors are worse than others. Posting to the wrong account is one thing, but posting homophobic remarks to thousands of customers is as stupid as it gets. And harder to deal with...

You can’t hush things up. The time between the ‘oh shit’ moment of realisation and the deletion of your tweet might be measured in seconds, but the damage will be done. The network will not allow you to cover things up. The bigger the error, the more retweets you’ll see. And if it’s really bad it will make the press, as this one has. 

You only really need to say sorry once. Properly. And if you really messed up then your boss might also need to say sorry.

Beware of multiuser / multi-profile tools. Tweetdeck and Bitly are my two main weapons of choice for managing (and posting to) the @econsultancy Twitter account. I also manage other accounts via these tools, including my @lakey personal profile. It is very easy to accidentally post to the wrong account. Take extra care if you 'own' your company social media profile.

Beware of pranksters. It isn’t clear whether somebody in Vodafone’s customer service team accidentally posted that tweet to the wrong account, or whether a colleague had used the account in jest. We don’t need eyeball scanners, but some kind of security might be in order, especially in customer service centres that are home to hundreds of bored employees.

Education. If this was a prank then it suggests that the person responsible wasn’t entirely clued up. Education, education, education!

Always pause before you do anything. This is one of the better real world social media guidelines to follow. Always. Pause. Before. You. Tweet.

Chris Lake

Published 8 February, 2010 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

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Charles_Taptu

I feel bad for them in a way, it really could have happened to anyone (assuming that it was a disgruntled employee. I've always found that using two different tools for twitter help to avoid posting to the wrong account - I use the browser and cotweet for work and tweetdeck for personal - so far it's worked - touch wood.

over 6 years ago

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Sumeet Vermani

Human error will occur but if an organisation deals with this swiftly and communicating that this does not represent the brand surely there is little else it can do. As far as I can tell the deleted the offensive tweet in question, which I would say is the right thing to do. The communicated how they were dealing with this and that it was not a hack - they could have made life easier by suggesting otherwise. The apologised to twitter followers - are we seriously suggesting that they should do so individually rather than copy and pasting? To be honest I think they could have handled things in a worse way, and there is a lesson for us all in how we handle a corporate brand in the social media sphere. It also poses questions in the blurring of lines between brands and individual employees on social media and at what point personal views become representative of the brand....

My take away - be very careful if and when engaging in the conversation!

over 6 years ago

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Josh

FYI, screenshots show the tweet was posted from the web client. So I wouldn't be surprised if it was some twit reaching over to someone's computer while they stepped away.

They'd be better off using CoTweet actually as there is a bit of an audit trail about who tweets. But you can't account for leaving computers unlocked and stepping away from the keyboard.

over 6 years ago

Zoe Sands

Zoe Sands, Head of Digital at Juniper Networks

It is good that Vodafone has reacted so swiftly to this breach of secuirty and issuing an apology. I agree with Charles this could have happened to any brand. It is a great shame that people feel they have to vent their frustrations in this way using a brand's Twitter acount to get their views across. A very silly move on the ex-Vodafone employee's part, s/he probably won't get a reference now! Although, this is a lesson for all brands to make sure that only media trained people have access to the brand's social media properties and are coached accordingly. I wonder if Vodafone has a social media policy, may be this needs to be updated with simple dos and don'ts.

over 6 years ago

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Ed Hartigan

Oh man, there are some good media #fails doing the rounds recently. John Terry, Toyota and now Vodafone...who will be next I wonder!

over 6 years ago

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blogbrevity

The enterprise level requires a systems of checks and  balances.  The weight of an entire organization cannot fall on one person especailly in regards to communications in a socially networked world.  Too many rely on "technically" savvy staff when a huge amount of reputation and influence is based on "content."  The collaborative opportunity afforded by social should extend internally to a team of people from multiple departments in a company with varying degrees of authority.  I am consulting for a hospital at the moment for whom we will be utlizing MediaFunnel.com recently renamed from "Tweetfunnel" for just this purpose.  Not only can you get input for content from a variety of sources encouraging internal engagement throughout an organization and better more relevant content, but before something is published it must pass editorial review. At least two people's eyes on a tweet are necessary to avoid such a disaster.  In addition, I think individuals twittering on behalf of organizations should be identified either in the bio if it is one person or with the carrot and initial style of more than one, i.e. see http://twitter.com/tweetfunnel. (I have no personal interest in TweetFunnel/MediaFunnel.  I just think it is a great product.)

I also agree an apology is best done once.  Recent example is the TechCruch intern who allegedly was involved in some impropriety.  An apology and explantation was posted on a blog and tweeted once.  Very effective way to address a situation without becoming your own negative PR machine.  All subsequent media referenced the apology.

Best, Angela Dunn @blogbrevity

over 6 years ago

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Dan Bowsher

I wanted to come back to you on some of the points you raise in this post.

You've suggested that we acted in panic to last Friday’s post and some commentators have accused us of spamming by adopting this approach. However, others (including members of the media, PR and marketing professionals) have praised us for addressing individual Tweeters directly.

Under these circumstances there are no hard and fast rules, but given the need to respond swiftly and effectively, we chose the best approach immediately available to us and we don’t feel this constitutes a panic.

Being consistent is a fundamental part of our Twitter engagement. When customers contact us on @VodafoneUK, we respond to them individually. Whether we’re dealing with a major reputational issue or not, we believe the majority of our followers would expect us to stick to this approach. Equally, we couldn’t afford to be in a position where one solitary response to the incident from @VodafoneUK was lost amongst the other Re-Tweets of the obscene Tweet.

We’re committed to Twitter as a channel for delivering customer support and are always looking for ways in which to enhance our online support services. We’ll take onboard the experience of last week and we will absolutely use it to fine tune our approach moving forward.

Thanks,

Dan.

over 6 years ago

Tommy Twanker

Tommy Twanker, Founder at Twankers

Dan, In hindsight (which is a marvellous thing) would you have acted in exactly the same way as you did? 

We're all human and we make mistakes. What happened @VodafoneUK, as regrettable as it was, was to really demonstrate that there are real people behind the corporate communications channels and not a stuffy suit speaking in sound bytes and working to scripts. This is an opportunity for you and any other large brands to recognise this and enable consumers (people) to talk to people behind the "logo". Be more personable and "real". I think any future mistakes would see the general public being much more forgiving. Honesty and reality builds trust.

Glad you didn't claim it as a well thought out, but risky viral campaign!

Tommy.

over 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Hey Dan,

Kudos for the fast / transparent response.

I absolutely agree that there are no hard and fast rules, and your reasoning for replying to everyone individually does make sense. There might be an argument to DM people - rather than reiterating the apology / emphasising the error in public - but fair play.

I think the fact that Vodafone has placed Twitter (or at least some part of Twitter) in the customer support department speaks volumes, and is to be applauded. Having tweets owned and vetted by PR / corp comms / management is not the way forward, in my view. 

There will be errors along the way for all who do this, and the larger the company, the greater the scope for teething trouble.

So can you cast any light on what actually happened? Was it just a case of dicking around, by bored colleagues on a Friday afternoon? Or a user error? Or something else entirely?

Cheers,

c.

over 6 years ago

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Sean odell

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You have to wonder if any rules could really be enforced in this area.  I have to admit that using Twitter in this area of business is great idea.  I would venture to say that the real cause of this will never be completely revealed.  It could even be better off this way. 

over 6 years ago

Dan Bowsher

Dan Bowsher, Web Relations Consultant at Vodafone UK

Tommy - Completely agree with your point about demonstrating there are real people behind the profile. We are always looking for ways to enhance this, but regular users of the service know our guys by name and benefit from a pretty personal service right now.

Chris - I can't go into details I'm afraid. The investigation is underway, but we identified and suspended the employee in question immediately. It's not really appropriate for me to say any more than that at the moment, but I can confirm it was not a hack or a disgruntled employee. I'll post an update if I can.

Cheers,

Dan.

over 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Totally understand. Maybe we can interview you in future to discuss the company's social media strategy?

c.

over 6 years ago

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Alex Moss

Fantastic article, and even better that someone from Vodafone has taken part in this debate. Either way, Vodafone are now getting some good linkbait!

over 6 years ago

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Nigel Sarbutts

I think Chris has misjudged this one in his initial post. I have absolutely no connection with Vodafone but I think they did a good job (and good to see them on here, successfully engaging in conversation).

Idiot does something idiotic, company says sorry immediately in unambiguous language and keeps saying sorry until the whole thing blows over a few hours later. Why craft individual responses to people making identical comments?

I am going to use this incident (and this thread which moves things on) as a case study of successful issues management.

over 6 years ago

Mike Stenger

Mike Stenger, MikeStenger.com

Great points Chris, I totally agree with them. In most cases, a brand would just delete the tweet and that would be that. Some wouldn't even respond back to those who mentioned something about it or asked a question in regards to it. I think it would have been far more effective (and less aggravating to those following VodafoneUK) if they used a service such as Posterous to post a quick update that would address this issue, instead of sending a massive amount of @ replies.

over 6 years ago

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Lee Smallwood

Dan

Just wanted to commend @VodafoneUK 's handling of the incident. I think you were right to answer each tweet - it sure stopped the 'groundswell' in it's tracks..!

I think that there are lessons to be learnt from this, all of which are pretty apparent, but what I'd really like to mention is that Vodafone's efforts in utilising Twitter as a customer service tool have, in my opinion, been outstanding. While other large scale organisations are doubting whether it's possible to reply to each and every tweet - I point them directly to @VodafoneUK as an example of how it can be done.

I'm pleased for your customers that last week's episode hasn't stopped what is an amazing effort by your team...

Lee

over 6 years ago

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Dennis Smith

All of your comments are valid and timely. In short, we are talking about reputation management and control online. This is a new phenomena and has to be taken seriously. Once something is on the Net, it is in reality impossible to erase. Good luck to Vodaphone and anyone else trying to protect their brand and give good customer service.

over 6 years ago

Mike Stenger

Mike Stenger, MikeStenger.com

Yikes, what a bad prank gone wrong. Was that staff member a 12 year old or something? I could see that happening in a school or home environment but at a work place with adults, that's just childish and someone needs to grow up.

over 6 years ago

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Rebecca

they've gained 2,000 followers since this was written. mistakes happen. they could have tweeted semi-jokingly that whoever tweeted that was fired and it wouldn't have become such a big deal. stay calm!

about 6 years ago

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Lead Management

Good bit of publicity. I don't think letting every service operative have use of twitter is a great idea though - BT are doing it very well with a select team.

about 6 years ago

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