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Gatorade's Twitter Miscue Shouldn't Scare Executives

Leaders, rather than fearing social media, should use them more — but exercise caution and knowledge

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June 16, 2014

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on June 15, 2014.

By Brayden King and Eszter Hargittai

During the NBA Finals this month, a fan asked Gatorade on Twitter why its "sports

Powerade, James' sponsor, seized the opportunity and tweeted after James scored 35 points in the next game, "There is strength in the silence. The best response is made on the court @KingJames. #powerthrough."

Controversies like this tempt public figures and companies to avoid using social media like Twitter. But silence has risks too.

Business and political leaders, in particular, depend on their reputations, and social media are where reputations increasingly are made or broken. If you fail to get control of your reputation, your detractors will shape how people perceive you.

We advocate that leaders, rather than fearing social media, use them more. Here are a few tips:

•Understand the technology you're using.

Some mistakes are due to a lack of familiarity with basic protocol. Last week, South Carolina's governor, Nikki Haley, used Instagram and Twitter to promote her state's new education plan.

"South Carolina made history this year by passing education reform. We will no longer educate children."

What Haley meant to say was that her state would "no longer educate children based on where they were born," but Twitter's 140-character limit cut the message short. The lesson is clear: Understand how the medium will convey your message.

•Don't outsource the work to 20-somethings, assuming they will be savvy with the medium.

How young people use social media with each other is not necessarily how professionals should communicate. Do not underestimate the professional experiences you bring to the table. These are what have made you a leader, and those are the qualities you want to draw on in your online presence.

•Seek to make an authentic connection with your audience rather than just using Twitter to gain fame.

Some celebrity tweeters have been accused of being too self-promotional. Film critic Bill Goodykoontz was called out for tweeting, "I never anticipated having the sort of job where I would be on the phone with someone and say: 'I have to go. Ang Lee is on the other line.'"

The most memorable tweets are those that emotionally resonate with an audience or those that provide helpful information, not ones that call attention to your accomplishments.

•Use humor to increase authenticity.

The CIA, not known for being the most personable organization, attracted favorable attention for announcing its Twitter presence with: "We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet."

Humor can even be used to turn a bad situation into an opportunity.

For example, a Red Cross employee's accidental tweet about alcohol consumption using the corporate account instead of her personal one went viral ("when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd"). The Red Cross could have hung the employee out to dry or ignored the issue. Instead, it deleted the original tweet and followed up with, "We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys."

Tweets like this show a personal side that appeals to an audience's need to connect with an organization and its leaders. The Red Cross' wit paid off, as supporters used the faux pas to publicize the importance of giving blood while sober.

•Develop relationships by sharing something of value with others.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, in his book "Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success," emphasized that the best leaders are those who do many small favors for those around them. Social media are perfect gateways to spread these small acts of kindness to a wider audience.

Celebrities often use their Twitter accounts to raise funds for charities, efforts that build relationships and communicate their values.

Our tweets and other social media uses are windows through which other people get a glimpse of who we are. Executives should not shutter their windows. When leaders are smart about using social media, the risks are worth it.

-Brayden King is an associate professor of management at Northwestern University. Eszter Hargittai is a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.