Latest industry views and advice

February 15

Stephen Fry allegedly quitting Twitter might be a seminal moment for companies to contemplate what, why and how they’re doing on the social network.

The news media went, frankly, bananas over the comedian and writer’s apparent departure from Twitter after his joke at the BAFTAs about costume design winner, Jenny Beavan, resembling a “bag lady” resulted in an online spat with critics.

As reported in The Guardian, Fry continued to argue with his detractors on Twitter, claiming that Ms Beavan was a friend who was in on the joke, and eventually deleting his Twitter account.

Question: why should we care? First, we need to think why it’s significant for Stephen Fry to leave Twitter in the first place.

  1. Stephen Fry was no slouch on Twitter – an early adopter on the network, he commanded a large, loyal following running into millions and could be described as a star social media performer.
  2. He has – certainly in the UK – a strong personal “brand” which has put him in high demand for prime time television jobs.
  3. He’s a comedian; comedians don’t necessarily play it safe and have more scope to cause outrage than companies and brands with shareholders and more conservative reputations.

So, if a savvy social media user like Fry – with a bucket load of entertainment industry credibility to boot and something of a licence to be risqué with his comedy – can’t escape the vitriol of the Twittersphere, then what does that mean for companies?

First, it shouldn’t mean a pre-emptive, mass exodus from Twitter before your company or brand manages to upset someone, somewhere on social media.

However, it should prompt some careful reflection on whether your brand’s current social media activity has forgotten the risks inherent in occupying online channels, how risks can be minimised and what you would do if confronted with online outrage, whether you considered it fair or unfair.

Clearly, not every brand has the same image it wants to convey and some will positively encourage outrage in the view that it fits comfortably with their values. Most companies, I would bet, would rather their Twitter or other social media activity was blissfully uncontroversial.

A useful blog post on HBR by Belinda Parmar highlights the types of risk that Stephen Fry probably felt he was immune to, as well as exploring in some detail the concept of corporate “empathy” in social media which she summarises as “reassurance, authenticity and emotional connection”. She explains that “empathy goes beyond simply solving a problem. It involves making a customer feel valued”.

While the advice she gives does less to address the issue of managing a Twitter “crisis”, the guidance would probably go a long way to avoiding a crisis in the first place and setting a standard for accountable and effective communications online.

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