Whether You Engage with Social Media Followers Is Just As Important as Why and How

Some fascinating developments in last week’s big Twitter miscommunication stories.

On Thursday, I published this post about Rep. Anthony Weiner’s Twitter fallout and the gaffe by a PR pro, who was defending his client. Since then, The New York Times has done some digging (reported in this excellent article, “Fake Identities Were Used on Twitter in Effort to Get Information on Weiner”) and discovered that Weiner’s Twitter account appears to have been monitored by political opponents, that people using fake Twitter handles (i.e. not their real names) were trying to engage him in online conversations, and they were contacting young women Followers of the congressman to try to learn more.

In an effort to provide deeper insight into the Redner Group’s upset Tweet about reviews of its client’s game that went “too far,” Jim Redner has written a lengthy guest column for Wired dissecting what happened, why he wrote the Tweet and how he goes about selecting the media outlets that receive a few hundred free review copies provided by the gaming company.

I don’t know of anyone worth their salt in the PR, corporate communications, marketing or news business who hasn’t had something blow up in their face at some point in their career, especially early on. Whether it happened on camera, in print or in a client’s office, these are the moments that we learned from, generous peers forgave us for, and, after incorporating this new knowledge into how we practiced our craft, made us better, wiser professionals.

After these stories hit the presses last week, the two pieces of advice I offered to individuals, communications folks and brands were: Never assume you know your Followers (mainly related to Rep. Weiner’s concerns) and Never confuse your professional Twitter account with your personal account (relating to the Redner Group story).

To these I’d like to add: Be careful how you choose to engage.

The reason most of us – as individuals or companies – are using social media is to engage audiences large and small. Often that means an auto-Follow back when people Follow or Friend us. On Twitter accounts belonging to public figures, you frequently see Followers request ReTweets. Sometimes these have to do with asking support for charities or help finding a missing person, other times they’re like reading ancient Greek. Companies are often lauded for responding with the same empathy as humans, so it is understandable that some might want to ReTweet about a missing person or promote a good cause. However, some of these requests may not be about genuine nonprofits or real missing people. Do you or your company have the time and resources to investigate every one of these requests to ensure that the information on your Twitter account is reliable and accurate? And doesn’t your reputation, or your company’s, depend in part on the quality and accuracy of the information it shares?

Note that social media influence, as tallied by tools like Klout, is based on the frequency of your online engagements, and being ReTweeted by someone with a large Klout score – someone like a celebrity – will boost your score even higher. So Twitter users aren’t always engaging with your or your brand to be friendly; in some cases, there’s a self-serving interest.

Then there are the Direct Messages that some choose to reply to and others clearly have a policy of not responding. While I would never encourage a company to ignore a DM that related to a customer service issue, responding to DMs can get you in trouble if you don’t know the person making the request.

Remember that the concern is not only this individual (who may not be who they say they are), but everyone else who can view one or both sides of the conversation, and it doesn’t even depend on who they Follow, rather it’s determined by how much reading of your Twitter stream and your correspondents’ they want to do.

For companies and brands, establishing guidelines around conversations with Followers and Friends is a must. Thinking through why you might or might not want to engage in DMs or RTs with Followers you may or may not know – and what one RT might invite in terms of requests for others, and whether you can handle the volume – will go a long way to maintaining a consistent and positive online presence and help protect brand reputation.

In the world of online forums, people who don’t contribute comments, but regularly read all of the threads of discussions are known as “lurkers.”

So, be extra careful with your online and social media presence and engagement practices because you never know who you’re talking with and you really never know who may be lurking out there.