Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) has a hell of a PR problem. Actually, I'm understating the issue … he is giving us an object lesson is how not to handle a messaging crisis. Although not meant to be, it is both instructive and entertaining. Thanks Congressman, we all needed a good laugh this week.
That said, there are some very valuable lessons to be learned from this unfortunate situation. Before we examine a few of them. I want to briefly discuss some attributes of social networking.
Twitter is often described as a "micro-blog," a "conversation," or even a "media distribution channel." While it has attributes associated with all of these descriptions, it is probably best to think of it as a social networking platform. Twitter allows us to engage in two relatively new forms of communication: many-to-one and many-to-many. I say relatively new because the tools have only been available for a little over five years. It is important to note that, unlike one-to-one (conversation) or one-to-many (broadcasting) which humans are physiologically equipped to monitor, many-to-one (tweets) and many-to-many (retweets) require digital tools to monitor. Not to put too fine a point on it, human beings have been doing one-to-one communication for over 140,000 years, and have been doing formalized one-to-many communication since the invention of the Greek Proscenium (about 3,500 years). With just 5ish years of Twitter under our collective belts, we have a lot to learn – as evidenced by @RepWeiner.
Guarding Your Brand: Make no mistake Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) is a brand, just like Kleenex or Coke or Doritos. @RepWeiner may not be as famous or ubiquitous as some other brands, but it is one of Anthony Weiner's most valuable assets. Which begs for the question, "Should anyone besides the Congressman be able to send a Tweet from @RepWeiner?"
In the real world, lots of business people, celebrities, personalities, and other entities use Twinterns, Twitter Teams or simply staffers to keep their Twitter accounts active and vibrant. It is a very common practice and a very bad one. Why would you hand the keys to your brand to a 20-something year old without seriously monitoring the brand messaging that got you where you are? The "those who get it" pushback on this question is always, "Hey there, you socially inept, out of the culture, analog alien wonk … social media is about giving up control and listening to your customers, blah, blah, blah." Yes. I know. Thanks. While there is a bit of truth to that argument, it is also true that you have to start from a position of good messaging to end there. Just because you can use a typewriter does not make you a novelist. Moving on.
Password Protection: Twitter accounts do not have multi-user access controls. There is only one username and only one password per account. So, if you choose to have others do your Tweeting, you are going to be giving out your password. This is a security nightmare.
Social Networking Honesty: People who get the most out of Social Media do not treat it like a popularity contest. Strong social networks are made up of people you know. Valuable Twitter profiles let you follow the people you respect, want to emulate, want to communicate with and, most importantly, add value to your social media experience and goals. Ashton (@aplusk) Kutcher, with his 6.8 million followers, is not a very powerful social networker. He's a broadcaster using a crippled medium. On the other hand, a suburban housewife with 50 followers (who she knows) can leverage her network in much more powerful ways. Carefully choosing who you follow will always pay social media dividends. And, equally as important, making sure that your Tweets are valuable to your followers is always the right thing to do.
Social Media Security: Tweets are date and time stamped and, in some cases, location stamped as well. There are several organizations that have stored every Tweet since the beginning of Twitter and these files are easy to search. Treat Twitter like the publishing platform it is. There is absolutely nothing private about Twitter. Nothing.
The Weiner Strategy: Perhaps it is this last point that the Congressman was banking on. After all, plausible deniability is an excellent defense. If you wanted to send a picture of your underwear-clad private parts to someone, what better way than posting the picture on your yfrog.com account? Hiding in plain site is brilliant! Wait a second … why not send a Sext message. It's private-er and you could do it with someone else's smart phone. (Unless you're Bret Farve). No?
Summary: Obviously the "Weiner Strategy" as outlined above is nonsense. And the good news is that when the FBI gets involved, as it surely will, it will only take a few minutes to find out who sent the Tweet (login info), where it was sent from (lat, lon and IP address of sending device), who owned the device from which it was sent (IP address of the sending device), who uploaded the picture (MAC address, IP address and login info from the yfrog.com account), etc. etc.
What can we learn from Weinergate? Set some strict policies for social networking with respect to your brand. Vet your Twitter team and institute best practices permissions and protocol for the team members. Make sure your followers know whether you are a person or a team so that they can respond appropriately. Both kinds of Twitter Profiles are well understood by people in the culture.
Lastly, I am sure that the "Battle of the Bulge," as this is being called by the New York Post, is going to end very badly for Congressman Weiner. He may have demonstrated the most damaging damage control in the young history of social media. But, sadly, I can promise you that it will not be the last.