Twitter lessons from Seth Rogen, Stephen Colbert and the NYPD

It has been a busy month for Twitter. Seth Rogen went to the social media platform to show that senators did not show up — and even left — during his testimony on Alzheimer's. The hashtag #CancelColbert trended for two days based on an insensitive Tweet that a staffer sent out from the handle @StephenColbert. Finally, the NYPD got huge blowback for a Twitter campaign that was supposed to encourage people to take photos of them with New York's finest but ended up with people posting photos of police abuse.

What can companies learn from these Twitter case studies?

Seth Rogan
Getty Images
Seth Rogan

First, Twitter and Instagram are a great way to show people what's happening behind the scenes. If you were watching Rogen's testimony on TV, you assumed there was a full docket of senators behind him. In fact, there were only a few and some even left during Seth's testimony. Seth's wife, Lauren, took a photo of the near-empty room, and Seth tweeted out how Alzheimer's must not be important to senators. One senator even tweeted "Thanks" to Seth, which he immediately tweeted back, asking why he left. While Seth's testimony got lots of media coverage, it was this behind-the-scenes photo and rapid response tweets that kept him in the news for days.

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People follow a company because they are a fan of the brand, and they follow an executive because they feel it creates a direct line to them. While so many CMOs and CEOs are hesitant to use platforms like Twitter and Instagram, Seth's tweet shows that giving followers a "behind-the-curtains" view into a brand or an executive, can do wonders for engagement and loyalty. Instead, most companies don't take that next step and simply push message-approved content. While many companies do create social media campaigns, it's very contrived, and they would be better served creating a year-long commitment to more organic engagement.

Secondly, the CEO of a company can't control every tweet that goes out, as was the case when Comedy Central tweeted out a racist-sounding tweet via a handle that appeared to be Colbert. Colbert, being the comedy genius that he is, did an entire segment on the crisis and then canceled that Twitter handle. Sometimes when things go awry on social media, you have to lick your wounds, be self-deprecating, apologize and move on. Every year there are cases where someone sends an inappropriate tweet on behalf of a company. Many C-suite executives who don't understand how social media works just delete the post and stick their head in the sand, waiting for the crisis to pass. Instead, there are ways to take a negative and turn it into a positive.

For CMOs and digital firms, the best avenue of approach is to start simple, creating lighter campaigns that will generate impressive digital results (likes, retweets, etc.). By building-up the confidence of executives who are unsure about the return on social media, you will find more opportunity in the future to execute more productive social media campaigns.

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Finally, you have to assess risk and reward before you begin a social media campaign. On the heels of stop and frisk, the NYPD is not the most beloved organization in New York City. Surely someone raised a red flag when the idea was thrown out there that the NYPD should encourage people to take photos! The fact is there will always be risk when you ask the public to participate, and all it takes is a very small audience to create a large uproar. Social media campaigns have to be very carefully thought out, which includes how to respond to (and if you should respond to) this small, but loud antagonistic audience.

To prevent this type of backlash, companies should first keep the power of the post in their own hands. The NYPD could have easily taken pictures on their own, tagged the New Yorkers in it and then posted it themselves. Not only would this have prevented the police brutality pictures, but it also would have driven people to the NYPD social media handles.

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Companies must learn to embrace social media and digital strategy, but they shouldn't do it because it's "cool." It should have a very specific purpose, whether it's to engage customers, elevate awareness of an issue, push a message, etc. And by learning from these three national social media examples, executives who are still wary of how social media can help their company will find that engaging directly with customers and consumers can have a long-term benefit.

Commentary by Trey Ditto, the CEO of Ditto Public Affairs, a full-service communications firm in New York. Previously he worked in political communications, including a stint in the Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @treyditto.