One thing I like best about Twitter is the serendipity of the stream. Just dip in and if you’re following the right people, you never know what you’ll find. Of course along with the good comes the seemingly endless gaffes, missteps and just plain public errors.

And while they’re entertaining to watch – if you’re not on the receiving end – they’re a needless reputation smudge both for organizations or individuals. 

Here are just a few examples of issues past:
Appleby’s and the waitress who was fired for exposing a cheap customer, a Kitchen-Aid staffer’s thoughtless remark about President Obama’s grandmother, or the Red Cross social media rep who was slizzered. The list goes on and on.

So what can people and organizations do to avoid excessive inflammations while keeping themselves active online?

1. Pretend you’re at a red light. On social media, that is. It’s not like you’re on the sidewalks of NYC, where it’s often easier to follow the crowd. Before you tweet, stop, take a breath and look both ways. A reflective second or two can make all the difference to your online reputation. And the light always turns green again.

2. Make sure your socks match. Come to think of it, make it your whole outfit. In a world where our personal and professional lives collide all the time, don’t make the mistake of tweeting a snarky opinion on a company account. Be absolutely sure which platform you’re using for which posts so everything looks well put together and not just slapped together after a too long night.

3. Don’t be an ostrich. Is the world moving too quickly for you? Does that make you want to put your head in the sand and pretend social media doesn’t exist – or say you’re too senior to get involved? You sound like someone who would have griped about TV in the ‘50s and digital cameras. Adapt, change, try something new… In other words, get with the program and out of your comfort zone. And if you make a mistake, as we all do, take responsibility and apologize. Fast.

4. One side of the edge has a slippery slope – do you know which one that is? It’s great to push the envelope. But it’s far too easy to say something edgy and spark a reaction because that’s a cool thing to do. I learned that lesson a long time ago in comedy: make sure what comes out of your mouth fits your persona or prepare to be booed off the stage. Schadenfreude may get you a quick hit, but it will punch back just as fast and often harder. Best to avoid it.

5. The mic is always on. One of the things PR folks talk about when we do media training is to assume the microphone is on until you leave the building or you can get caught saying something stupid. That’s the same with social media. A couple of years ago a senior communicator learned that the hard way when she tweeted a rude and racist comment that went viral and changed her life – and not for the better. She didn’t have a lot of followers at the time, but some of them happened to be media. Remember: It’s not private if it’s on social.

One thing’s for certain, crisis and reputation strategists have their hands full thanks to social media. And real crises that affect reputation happen and need to be managed by experienced professionals in real-time. That’s why it’s better to catch avoidable issues at the source before they devolve into something that can do real damage to a brand.

So be funny, pointed, irreverent, educational, entertaining – whatever works best for you or your organization. Then add a dollop of judgment to avoid dumb mistakes. There’s no reason to be an issue’s tweeter zero.

What ridiculous tweets and posts have caught your eye lately? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

A version of this post was originally published in Marketing Magazine.

About Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman conducts social media and online crisis training workshops, is a digital and communications strategist and speaks at events across North America. He's the co-founder of three PR agencies, president of a consultancy and has worked in the industry for over 25+ years. Martin is a LinkedIn Learning and author, teaches digital strategy and social media at University of Toronto SCS and Seneca College, and is a past-chair of PRSA Counselors Academy.

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