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.