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How to avoid a corporate Twitter disaster

Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In an effort to boost their relationship with customers, a growing number of companies are putting their executives in the line of fire by hosting highly publicized Q&As. All too often, however, they backfire.

U.K. budget airline Ryanair's outspoken CEO, Michael O'Leary, sparked controversy when he took to Twitter on Monday to answer customers' questions using the hashtag #GrillMOL.

But his tweets - which included a number of references to the attractiveness of female correspondents – were met with disbelief by some customers.

Ryanair's Q&A followed an attempt by British Gas to win customers round on the same day it announced price rises of over 9 percent – a move that surprised a number of Twitter users.

So what should companies do to avoid a Twitter Q&A fail? We asked two social media consultants – who have advised several firms on online strategies - for their tips.

Prepare for the backlash

"Brands are too naïve. The executives need to be warned that just because people within their company treat them with respect, the masses won't," Maz Nadjm, founder of social media consultancy SoMazi, told CNBC. "People on Twitter don't care if you're the boss."

British Gas' customer service director Bert Pijls appeared overwhelmed by the quantity of tweets directed his way, as the #AskBG hashtag became a means for numerous customers to vent their anger at the price hikes.

But Nadjm – who has over 34,000 followers on Twitter – said that despite the risks, it was important for brands to be "out there."

"People are going to discuss companies on social media, so it makes sense for them to be part of that conversation," he said.

(Read more: Twitter goes head-to-head with the Bank of England)

He stressed that customers did not react well when the Q&A came across like a gimmicky PR stunt. "The CEOs need to genuinely want to engage. They should be prepared to be frank and honest – and admit they have made mistakes."

Make sure the CEOs know how to use Twitter

It might seem obvious, but the basic functionality of Twitter appeared to have passed Ryanair's O'Leary by before he began his Twitter Q&A.


"It's crucial that the whole team involved knows how to use Twitter- they don't have to be experts, but they should know how to use the site," Lynsey Sweales, CEO of social media and online marketing agency SocialB, told CNBC.

Avoid being offensive

Similarly, those tweeting on behalf of the company should be aware of the accepted etiquette of Twitter – and avoid being rude, Sweales added.

"Executives need to be media-trained for Twitter – just like they would be for other public events. And perhaps an executive shouldn't be put up for Twitter Q&As if they're known to be controversial," she said.

O'Leary not only made a number of remarks that some Twitter users deemed sexist, but also swore and tweeted risqué jokes.


Sweales stressed that this light-hearted approach was a high-risk strategy: "If someone jokes on Twitter it doesn't come across in the same way as it does face-to-face. It's like email - and it's risky."

Despite the controversy, however, Ryanair said it was "delighted" with the attention #GrillMOL had received, adding that it would "certainly look at holding another question and answer session soon."

"It was a chance for our passengers to put their questions directly to Michael O'Leary and for him to engage with some of the 81m people we carry annually," the company said in a statement.

A joined-up strategy is crucial

The decision by British Gas to host a Twitter Q&A on the same day as a price hike surprised both Sweales and Nadjm. "It's phenomenal that they did it on Thursday - of course they were going to get hammered," Nadjm said.

(Read more: Twitter quittersdog IPO)

But British Gas stood by its decision, saying it was "the right thing to do because we are committed to being open and transparent with our customers at all times."

"We also want to make clear rising prices don't have to mean rising bills and there is help available," the company said in a statement.

Sweales said that part of British Gas' problem was that it came across as unprepared. "This was not a joined-up strategy – they clearly weren't prepared for the response they got," she said, adding that the company's responses had failed to address some key issues.

"Twitter's great, but 140 characters don't make for a great conversation."

Not all Twitter Q&As are as fraught as Ryanair's and British Gas's, however. The Bank of England successfully navigated the social media minefield last Friday – despite being asked a range of weird and wonderful questions alongside more serious ones about the U.K.'s economy.

"Twitter Q&As provide a great opportunity for organizations to engage with the outside world," Nadjm added. "Especially if the executives actually explain what they're going to do about the issues, rather than avoid the issues."

ByCNBC's Katrina Bishop. Follow her on Twitter @KatrinaBishop and Google

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