For all those who needed an illustration of how a business shouldn't use Twitter, Kenneth Cole kindly provided it this week by using the current unrest in Egypt as a promotional tool.
"Millions are in uproar in #Cairo," read the original tweet from Thursday morning. "Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo."
Widespread uproar was the result, all right, but not as a result of any spring collection. Such was the magnitude of the outcry at Cole's insensitivity, in fact, that the company hastily removed the tweet that same day and issued two retractions instead.
"Re Egypt tweet: we weren't intending to make light of a serious situation," read the first. "We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment -KC"
A second, posted on Facebook soon afterward, read as follows:
"I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I've dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate."
Cole's apology didn't prevent the creation of a satirical Twitter account inspired by the gaffe, however, and it's now filled with mock tweets such as, "South Africans won't be able to tear APARTheid my new knits -- they're just that strong!"
‘It Goes in the Trash'
Sensitivity, of course, is a key requirement of any business trying to use Twitter as a promotional tool, and Cole's original tweet failed miserably on that front. Cole, however, is by no means alone. We couldn't resist putting together a small roundup of other notable gaffes from other businesses and public-facing officials.
- Back in 2007, Steve Rubel, a senior vice president at publicity agency Edelman, used Twitter to post a negative comment about PC Magazine. "PC Mag is another. I have a free sub[scription] but it goes in the trash," he tweeted, prompting the magazine's editor-in-chief to publicly suggest a media boycott. Rubel later apologized.
- In 2009, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban criticized referees via Twitter during a game. He was fined $25,000.
- An employee of Vodafone UK used an unattended keyboard to send a homophobic tweet from the company's @VodafoneUK account, which then had more than 8,500 followers. In response, the company had to issue multiple apologies.
- Late last year, a profane tweet was made on Sen. Chris Dodd's (D-Conn.) Twitter account. ""U love torturing me w this s---," the tweet read, causing Dodd's office to have to scramble with an explanation and an apology.
- Speaking of unfortunate word choices, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin used a nonexistent word in a tweet last year and then excused it by likening herself to Shakespeare. The word in question was refudiate: "Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate" Later, she sent a tweet of justification: "Shakespeare liked to coin new words, too. Got to celebrate it!"
- Another bizarre turn of phrase was tweeted last year by the U.S. embassy in Beijing, which in a Twitter pollution report referred to Beijing's air as "crazy bad." Of course, at least it used real words...
- Earlier this year a U.K. councillor admitted on Twitter that her party had not effectively tackled inequality, despite the party's proclamations to the contrary. "Inequalities deepened despite our 13 years in power," wrote Isobel Bowler.
6 Twitter Rules of Thumb
What can businesses learn from these well-publicized missteps? There are plenty guides out there for using Twitter effectively. Based on the above examples, however, I'd hasten to add the following rules of thumb.
1. Be Sensitive. Never, ever use a political, environmental or civic crisis to promote your company or your products. It reeks of opportunism.
2. Be Positive. As a business entity, you should never post negative comments about others on Twitter. You're the only one that will end up looking bad.
3. Be Clear. Make sure you have a policy regarding who in your company may post using the company's official Twitter account, and make sure you offer them training on what is and isn't appropriate. Make clear the ramifications for misuse.
4. Be Clean. Never use profanities or other vulgar terms in a tweet. Once again, it will only make you look bad, and you'll likely offend customers, too.
5. Be Literate. Don't follow in the footsteps of Sarah Palin or George W. Bush: Make sure it's a word before you make it public.
6. Be Careful. Last but definitely not least, remember that using social media is a little bit like driving. Don't do it while intoxicated, and always think twice before you tweet.
Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.