In furniture, publishing, two companies learn Twitter responsibility

If the world learned anything from the Cartoon Network's infamous Boston bomb scare; the one in which "guerilla marketing" went bad with lighted signs meant to promote the Adult Swim programming, and instead caused an "army of emergency vehicles" and the resignation of network head Jim Samples; it is this: no matter how edgy are the fancy new-fangled marketing tools you're using to reach customers, it's still vital to manage one's message. And there is such a thing as bad PR.

Two companies, however, were sent back to repeat Managing Newfangled Marketing Methods 101 this week. One was almost understandable; the other was shameful. Let's do shameful first, shall we? Not only did British furniture company Habitat get hammered by Twitter users for its "fail" in trying to market a chance to win a £1,000 gift card by hijacking Twitter tags connected to iPhones and the Iran elections; but it also was deemed "two visits from the fail whale" when the company blamed -- and then dismissed -- an intern for the problem.

Here's lesson #1 for utilizing viral marketing methods: don't give an intern, or any young/unseasoned associate, all the power.

Just because it's on Twitter doesn't mean it's any less of a reflection of your company -- in fact, the opposite may be true. Individuals see Twitter accounts as an unusually deep way to get to know someone; the "ambiant social awareness" it provides is surprisingly full of personality. Likewise, corporate Twitter accounts are perceived as the daily-life personality of the company. Not mascot; more like the space just between conscious and subconscious. The you that is most you.

Screw that up by, as Habitat's intern did, utilizing popular Twitter tags in tweets about the company's giveaway in order to gain extra clicks (the thinking: people search for these trending topics to keep abreast of news about, for instance, the latest iPhone release or the Iran election), and you don't just have a bad marketing campaign; you have a new trending topic combining your company name with the tag "#fail". (What's more, Habitat showed its hand at its complete innocence to the Twitter form by calling what their intern did "uploading" tags; all he did is read, type and hit "enter.") Better: a more measured response to your tweets from people who care about your company enough to follow it on Twitter.

The second example of bad Twitter form was novelist Alice Hoffman, whose publisher wisely shut down her Twitter account and took over her public-facing communication after she flew off the handle at a critic who gave her new book The Story Sisters a (mildly) bad review. Hoffman called the critic a "moron" and "snarky" and invited her fans to call and email Roberta Silman complaining. Shaye Areheart, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group division of Random House, sent out this statement in Hoffman's name after her Twitter account was deleted: " the heat of the moment I responded strongly and I wish I hadn't. I'm sorry if I offended anyone. Reviewers are entitled to their opinions and that's the name of the game in publishing. I hope my readers understand that I didn't mean to hurt anyone and I'm truly sorry if I did."

Lesson #2: Think before you tweet.

It seems Silman was hurt, a little, by the fracas; as the LA Times Jacket Copy blog notes, now that we're all reading Silman's review, we're realizing she didn't write the most elegant piece of criticism, ever. But thoroughly injured in the eyes of other writers and many readers: Hoffman, whose childish rampage was hardly befitting a literary giant. The whole exchange is on Gawker, where the writer sagely notes that Hoffman should have had a blog; she'd be better able to handle a little light criticism.

Twitter may seem to be the most user-friendly and simple to use of any viral marketing technique. It's both benefit and warning sign; in its ease of use is also its pitfall. Alice Hoffman's Twitter account, and those damning tweets by the Habitat intern, are now erased from Twitter's public spaces. But they're very much alive and well on the internet, and in consumer's minds.

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