When Social Media backfiresSocial Media can be one of the most powerful new weapons in a company’s arsenal.

But like all other weapons it must be handled with care or there’s high risk of collateral damage.

People expect a company’s social media persona to match with the tone, content and values of the company’s brand. But when those expectations are not met, the fallout can be devastating, as evidenced by the following social media disasters from BP and CNN.

Social Media is Not Corporate Propaganda

Logo social media mistakeBP America – 45,000 Facebook fans 18,000 Twitter followers

BP was fortunate to have a well developed set of social media channels through which they could communicate their message. They had been working on dispelling the perception that the company was nothing but a large, faceless corporation, caring only about the bottom line.

As news of North America’s worst natural disaster broke, however, it quickly became apparent that BP just didn’t get it.

They pushed out well-edited copy that announced victories and over-emphasized progress. There was no conversation, no give and take and no interaction with the community.

BP’s social media activities confirmed that they were not interested in engaging their audience and that they were just using social media as a corporate propaganda tool.

Before launching a Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or any other social media account, companies must first evaluate whether or not they are willing to be accountable to their customers and take genuine interest in what the market is saying about them.

If not, then social media is doomed to backfire and will do more harm than good.

Respect Your Own Brand

news in social mediaCNN – 1.4 million Facebook fans 1.4 million Twitter followers

One of the features of social media that tends to get overlooked is that it can also be a lot of fun! Fun is interacting with the public, posing interesting content and occasionally poking fun at yourself when you make a mistake (yes, we will all make mistakes at some point).

But fun does not mean disrespecting your brand or disrespecting your followers with cheap stunts simply to gain popularity.

CNN has built a social media following that is unparalleled outside of a handful of celebrities. That kind of attention from one’s audience is an unbelievable privilege. And it’s expected that such a privilege is to be revered and respected.

CNN, however, disrespected everyone who had ever followed them – and turned their relationships into commodities – by accepting the challenge from Ashton Kutcher to race to a million followers.

Ashton Kutcher and CNN were two of the world’s most followed people at the time when a race to a million followers was proposed as an event to benefit charity. Building followers and benefiting a good cause at the same time probably sounded like a good idea to CNN. But by choosing to race against a pop-culture icon, CNN marginalized their legitimacy and openly implied that followers are merely a number to them.

The winner of the competition was irrelevant. It may well be that seven figures worth of people were following CNN’s Twitter account, but the impact on their brand, their reputation and their integrity was significantly damaged. While hundreds of thousands of new celebrity junkies started following CNN, thousands of previously engaged, genuine news fans unfollowed CNN and headed instead for sources that treated their followers with more respect.

Lessons to be Learned

1. The research is in. The conclusion is definitive – Social Media is not a soapbox.

People have not set aside their newspapers, radios and TVs just to flock to Twitter and Facebook so that they can be shouted at by your brand. They have embraced social media because they want to talk to you and more importantly, they want you to talk to them. Converse with your audience – never pontificate.

2. Maintain your brand’s dignity and reputation.

Don’t shoot for the lowest common denominator. Make your brand stand out with quality and respect for itself and its community. The Internet is crowded with bottom feeders – choose to differentiate yourself by rising to the top.

Where were you when Ashton Kutcher reached a million fans? Remember it well or couldn’t give a rat’s ash -ton? Let is know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. Thanks!