A Lesson in Social Media: Turn Off the Robo-Tweets During Tragedy

You can forgive us Americans if our nerves were a bit raw yesterday. An iconic sporting event turned into another senseless tragedy when two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line.

So, as people turned to social media to get updates from news organizations, to console each other and even to track down friends and family who were near the scene, very few were in the mood to get run-of-the-mill marketing pitches in their Twitter streams — especially from a widely followed social media guru.

That’s what happened, though, as Guy Kawasaki asked his 1.2 million followers, “Ready to get your writer’s edge?” and then linked them to the sign-up page for one of his upcoming events. Kawasaki bills himself as the “former chief evangelist of Apple” and now is an independent social media consultant.

Many of his followers were incensed. Clearly, the spam that continued from his feed as news spread about the deadly blast was auto-generated. But as a number of people pointed out, he could have — and should have — cut the damn thing off for a while.

Soon, it became apparent that Kawasaki himself was back at the controls, but it didn’t help. Rather than admit appearing insensitive — even if due to a technological miscue — Kawasaki was defensive and arrogant. “Loving how people with less than 1,500 followers are telling me how to tweet.”

Ouch.

The outcry only grew louder, and deservedly so. “Because that is a measure of knowledge??” tweeted one follower. “It’s nice to see that having a million followers does not guarantee a person will have any sense of humanity, tact or humility,” posted another.

The lessons here should be obvious, but for the record:

  • Technology is great, but it still requires a human touch. There are some decisions a computer just can’t make.
  • Social media is about building relationships. You can’t build relationships with a machine.
  • Part of building relationships is not coming off as an insensitive jerk at a time when your audience calls out what it deems to be offensive behavior.
  • Sheer number of followers alone does not make you an expert or automatically confer good judgment.
  • There still seems to be a mystical aura around social media, even after several years of it becoming part of the business communication mainstream. This is propagated in part by self-proclaimed experts in the field. But really, the principles governing social media are essentially the same as any other vehicle, including: Build and maintain relationships. Be transparent. Treat your audience with respect.