JP Morgan, R. Kelly and Michelle Rhee: When Twitter attacks

As a communications professional, having a boss that really gets communications, understands the value of having a good communications plan and doesn’t interfere too much with said plan is like heaven on earth. Having a boss that does the exact opposite and insists on walking off a cliff is the exact opposite.

So many social media blunders make me wonder if a public figure was simply given bad advice or if said figure insisted on walking off the cliff. Today was one of those days.

After three disastrous Twitter chats held by three different public figures, communications professionals should know that as alluring and transparent as this move looks, it’s a recipe for disaster. A quick recap of the bedlam that closed 2013 and opened 2014:

JP Morgan Chase Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee was up first last November. After soliciting questions via the #AskJPMorgan hash tag, it didn’t take long for the wild west in 140 characters to seize on the opportunity to lambast the financial juggernaut for… well, just about everything.

Here’s a brief sampling of the Tweets:

“Do the cries of starving homeless children ever keep you banksters [sic] up at night?”

“I have mortgage fraud, market manipulation, libor rigging & predatory lending – am I diversified?”

After getting blitzed with negative tweets that quickly took over the story, some wise soul stopped the bleeding with the following tweet:

“Tomorrow’s Q&A is cancelled. Bad Idea. Back to the drawing board.”

While the JP Morgan Twitter chat is somewhat forgivable, the next disaster is a little harder to justify. In a move that resembled more social media parody than social media strategy, Robert Sylvester  Kelly (of all people) announced a Twitter chat in December 2013. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, R. Kelly has a string of allegations of pedophilia under his belt (no pun intended). While Kelly beat the criminal charges and settled several civil suits, the damning evidence is a mile long*. Whoever was responsible for this social media strategy should seriously have thought twice. But since they didn’t, let’s look at some of the results:

“Are you sure you wanna do this R ?”

At least one good Samaritan knew this wasn’t going to end well. And not end well is an understatement.

#AskRKelly my lil cousin jus bout to finish 10th grade … Seems like she ready?

What’s your favorite bedtime story to read a date? #AskRKelly

When you said that she reminded you of your Jeep, was it a Power Wheel? #AskRKelly

Unlike the good people at JP Morgan, Kelly actually answered questions, 16 to be exact. Which prompted this:

So @rkelly only answered 16 questions,the perv really cannot do anything over 18 #AskRkelly

To be fair, the album Kelly was promoting, Black Panties, did reasonably well, sales wise. However, there are better ways to accomplish promotion that don’t involve throwing your clients to the wolves. Any communications professional with sense should’ve pushed back on this – and pushed back HARD.

The final Twitter chat victim was former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. The negative publicity won’t be nearly as bad for Rhee as it was for Kelly or JP Morgan. Salon hosts a breakdown of some of the more interesting – and substantive – questions that came Rhee’s way.

Solutions

If you have a client with a rather questionable reputation, a Twitter chat is like throwing raw meat into a lion’s den. Even if you have a client with a stellar reputation, there are still better alternatives to the Twitter chat. Here are a few:

1. A chat hosted by a (friendly) media source

Online outlets live and die by web traffic. Partnering with a publication ensures that some of the questions will be tough, but fair, paints a picture of transparency, encourages public dialogue and cuts down on the shenanigans. Newspapers and magazines are good for keeping the conversation on a serious tone.

2. A TV or radio interview with live callers

On the risk level, this is somewhere in the middle between “this is a really bad idea” and “nothing can go wrong.” TV and radio shows worth appearing on screen their callers. So while you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s coming before a question is asked, anything can happen during live TV or radio.

3. A web chat hosted by the  client

This is the least transparent, yet safest, of the three options. Solicit questions via the company/client website and answer them in a separate blog post.  Of course, this often stinks of rigging the game. But, in the messaging game, it is infinitely better to get your message out there than to become the story of what not to do.

Social media blunders can’t always be prevented, but there are often alternative ways of promotion that don’t involve leaving your client open to horrendous press.

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