#Twitterfails: the need for social media training, and other lessons

Public relations company"How do I shut down Twitter?" they asked. No, it wasn't your granny on Christmas day with your new smartphone in her hands and a confused look on her face as she tried to wrap her paper-crowned head around another alien technology.

No. This question was reportedly asked by the marketing director at HMV, one of the many large corporations to have had a bit of a social media marketing whoopsie recently. In late January, following the failing music giant's slide into administration, and with redundancies on the cards, one HMV worker decided to become the voice of defiance. With control of the company's official Twitter page, she attacked HMV from within, venting her anger on the network. It was hours before the authorities could put an end to the episode, which by then had gone sensationally viral. I imagine an overturned filing cabinet against the door of a darkened office keeping out the baying security guards while P45s cascade from the flaming windows and a marketing intern quivers under a desk. With one hand she clicks send on the final tweet; the other is holding one of those dead man's switch detonators. Her eyes are bulging like Dyson's in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Another corporate brand to suffer a social security slip-up was Burger King, whose Twitter account was hacked and given an uncanny makeover. Under the golden arcs of its new livery, the account spewed tweets ranging from the predictably satirical to the downright bizarre. While the average Twitter user had a giggle, Burger King's industry peers were confronted by the real-life enactment of a crisis scenario that has doubtless been discussed around boardroom tables by senior marketing managers. How many of them tapped the thick mahogany in a bid to keep the brand gods on their side? And how did they feel - was it pity, relief, a bit of schadenfreude - as they watched, wincing, their eyes glued to the Burger King feed? One consultant for US brand Wendy's tweeted: "My real life nightmare is playing out over on @BurgerKing".

In the above cases, exceptional circumstances led to the company's marketing weapon being held to its own head. (It's worth noting that this is a problem particularly suited to Twitter, with its potential for immediate and unmediated communication with the masses.) But there are examples of everyday poor social media practice that have left brands facing similar bursts of social media outrage. They say the line between our personal and professional lives is blurring. Spare a thought for the exec at Chrysler's PR agency who presumably mixed up the two on his Tweetdeck in broadcasting this shining gem of local observation: “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f****** drive.” This kind of familiar human error is now a case study on the social media training course that the now ex-employee should have taken.

And who can forget Starbucks Ireland's tweet which unsurprisingly aggravated some geo-political sensitivities: "Happy hour is on! Show us what makes you proud to be British for a chance to win. Don't forget to tag #MyFrappuccino". Whether this tweet betrays the ignorance of the tweeter, or was the erroneous result of an over-synchronised social media marketing campaign, it was rightly lampooned. Cute hashtag, by the way.

The real subject of my post, however, is the junior marketing exec or intern (in-house and agency) so often left in charge of a company's social media accounts. These young professionals, sometimes dubbed "Gen Y" or "Gen Z" (almost exclusively by those whose membership expired long ago), are indeed more adept than some of the managers who leave them to man the controls. Sure, they can build follower counts and hashtag the crap out of any promotional campaign, but that doesn't mean they do not need further social media training and support - not to mention a decent wage.

And there are some, even today, for whom any wage at all would be an improvement. One of the most cutting of the HMV Twitter revolutionary’s comments was one about the very account they had commandeered. It turns out it was created a couple of years before by the then-unpaid intern. This revelation shows how corporations like HMV have failed in their treatment of social marketing and digital communications staff - the young, graduate-level, first- and second-jobbers trying to break into a hugely competitive industry. They bring highly relevant skills to the market, but many are priced out of the game. Living costs in London (still very much the industry hub) and fierce competition low- and no-wage positions combine to form a new digital glass ceiling.

The good news is that corporations (and by "corporations" I mean the men and women of a certain seniority who run them) are learning more about social media. It may not be because they "get it" or even like it; in fact I'm sure many fear and hate it precisely because they don't understand it. They are beginning to appreciate its power because they have seen first-hand the potential for reputational damage that comes with misuse of the channel. Right now the conversation is about Twitter disasters and the need to implement measures to avoid further "nightmares" like Burger King's Big Hac. Security considerations like this are of course pressing, but let's not forget the everyday business of social marketing from which these are temporary but attention-grabbing distractions. There is massive potential for good marketing and innovative company/customer interaction on Twitter and other social networks. These are powerful vehicles driving online marketing, and many of them have the most junior members of the team behind the wheel. Big corporations should give them a bit more training and support - and a lot more credit - and see where they take their brand. In the words of @poppy_powers, the straight-talking HMV tweeter: "I hoped that today's actions would finally show them the true power and importance of Social Media, and I hope they're finally listening."

Could your business benefit from a brush-up on Twitter or a workshop to help you exploit other B2B social marketing tools? Check out these social media training courses.