Retailers and consumer-products companies are increasingly using Twitter as a marketing tool, which has given them limitless opportunities to connect with their customers.
It's also exposed them to nearly as many chances to come across as, well, a pack of twits.
Because the social network gained prominence as a platform for off-the-cuff, irreverent, 140-character tidbits, some companies have been lulled into a false sense of intimacy -- right up until the moment a poorly thought out missive gets them into serious hot water with the buying public.
Some businesses see tweeting "as an invitation to say things that they would not otherwise say," Gregory Parks, a partner with Morgan Lewis' litigation practice, who co-heads the law firm's retail practice group, tells DailyFinance.
But in reality, Twitter is "like any other public statement," so businesses should figure: "If they wouldn't put it in a newspaper, they shouldn't put it on Twitter," he says.
And when an ill-conceived tweet goes out on the world wide web, the backlash is far-reaching -- and hits in a New York minute, to boot.
"The power of social media allows one statement to reach millions of individual in an audience -- general audience, target audience, etc. -- which [can] then allow the message to spin out of control," Kenneth Wisnefski, founder and CEO of Webimax, which develops online marketing strategies for retailers such as Aéropostale (ARO) and Sam's Club (WMT), tells DailyFinance.
This can add up to a public-relations nightmare for high-profile businesses. "Companies have a public image to uphold, and with consumer perception being one of the most important things to them, there's a higher standard to which they have to adhere," Parks says.
He should know. In Parks' role advising retailers on sale advertising, more and more of his time is spent reviewing their social media campaigns -- in part to uncover potentially harmful tweets before they get sent.
"Five years ago, I was reviewing no social media programs; in the last couple of years, it's dramatically increased from 20% to 30%" of the advertising programs he reviews, be it a discount offer or a contest promotion, he says.
"The challenge with Twitter is that a company has a very limited space to get their message across."
Here are five unfortunate examples of corporate tweeting gone wrong.
Who's Minding The Twitter? Big Companies' Ill-Fated Tweets
Who's Minding the Twitter? Big Companies' Most Painful Mis-Tweets
Some tweet gaffes have arisen from companies poking fun at -- or making light of -- deadly serious events.
Such was the case with a Kenneth Cole tweet gone awry. The fashion designer took heavy flak last winter for a tweet that riffed off the pro-democracy protests in Egypt's Tahrir Square to hawk his new collection: "Millions are in Uproar in Cairo. Rumor has it they heard our new spring collection is now available online," he tweeted.
The attempt at a comical spin was not well received.
"The company attempted to leverage dry humor and make a gentle, joking reference to current events, however Cairo is clearly not the best opportunity," Wisneski says.
Cole himself later expressed his regret on Facebook. "I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt," he said. "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."
Aflac paid the price for a Tweet it didn't even send. In March 2011, comedian Gilbert Gottfried fired off a series of tweets that joked about the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami, including, "I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, 'They'll be another one floating by any minute now.'"
Gottfried, who had long provided the familiar voice of the Aflac duck, was immediately fired. He apologized, saying, "I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families."
Although Aflac bounced back from the Twitter backlash, Gottfried's offensive tweet cost the company its voice, Parks says.
In 2010, a Vodafone UK employee attacked gays in a tweet, using a Twitter account the company reserves for handling customer complaints.
"This is a classic case of ignorance by an employee that should never have had access to their official platform, obviously," Wisnefski says. "Five years ago, a customer service staff member of a large company would never have been able to make a statement and deliver it to millions of individuals. Marketers and advertisers need to trust and understand who is handling their social media accounts."
Without a lot of fanfare, Starbucks (SBUX) started slashing prices of its Verismo brewers. The entry-level and high-end models are selling through Starbucks' website at 25% discounts for $149 and $299, respectively.
It doesn't matter if this is a temporary holiday promotion. Starbucks just introduced the single-cup espresso brewer three months ago. It can't be selling well if the java giant is resorting to dramatic markdowns. Maybe folks just don't care about making espresso at home. Maybe Starbucks got cocky by putting out an overpriced coffee maker that only brews a limited number of Starbucks pods.
And finally, we have this tone-deaf blunder from United Airlines (UAL).
A United passenger sent out a series of bitterly frustrated tweets, complaining that her flight had been canceled. They included: "Thanks @unitedairlines for randomly canceling my miles booked ticket for tonight, taking the miles & not letting me rebook for lack of miles," and, eventually, from her rebooked flight, "Thanks to @unitedairlines I can finally watch that Frasier episode I missed in 1994."
The airline's official Twitter controller tweeted back this sarcastic response: "I hear the blues a-callin', Tossed salad and scrambled eggs," -- lyrics from the theme song to Frasier.
United Airlines later issued this apology: "Speaking of eggs - they are all over our face! We missed the tone of the customer's tweet and apologize to those who were offended," the company said.