23/09/2014 10:06 BST | Updated 22/11/2014 05:59 GMT

To Tweet or Not to Tweet

It seems that businesses have finally realised that Twitter is not simply a meeting place for people to share experiences of cups of tea and pictures of their favourite pets. Most businesses now have Twitter accounts and a number of senior leaders in the business world also tweet regularly.

It's also good to see that many of those companies understand that it is important to try to engage with their customers and followers rather than simply promote themselves. I particularly enjoy seeing the creative and humorous ways in which some organisations interact with other users of Twitter.

Having said that, there is surely a line to be drawn. In his recent HBO show, British comedian John Oliver railed against corporations hijacking hashtagged conversations on Twitter to promote themselves, or simply inappropriate companies associating themselves with national events.

Examples he used included a restaurant chain tweeting a hashtag used to discuss domestic abuse to sell their pizza and a sex toy company tweeting in memory of 9/11.


Oliver said, "Look companies, your silence is never going to be controversial. No-one will ever go, 'I can't believe it, Skittles didn't tweet about 9/11 yesterday'".

So how do you choose when to tweet on an external hashtag and what to say when you tweet?

I believe that one key step is to have a clear idea of what your Twitter persona should be. What are the brand values of the business? They should guide your activity on Twitter and other social networks.

As a very simple example, a company who wants to be seen as a leader in diversity would naturally look to tweet in support of International Women's Week or Martin Luther King Day. In fact, it might look odd were they not to mark the occasion. A similar interaction may not be so natural for a business appealing predominantly to young men.

It is also advisable to picture the reaction to your tweet. Yesterday the Liverpool footballer Mario Balotelli tweeted his glee at Manchester United's 5-3 defeat at Leicester City. The response included a large number of nasty, racist tweets aimed in Balotelli's direction.


I certainly don't condone the despicable response to Balotelli's tweet and I would defend his right to tweet his opinions and what was harmless fun. A company, however, would need to seriously consider the likely response to a similar tweet and how that response might reflect on them or offend others.

It's too easy to go the other way and play it safe. I don't believe that corporate accounts should be limited to business conversation only. It's positive to see business tweeters engaging with their followers, answering questions, congratulating them or using humour effectively. We all know the old adage, 'People buy people'. Maybe people buy personality and social media allows brands to build a more rounded personality than previous routes to market have done.

However, there is a line and hijacking other people's conversations simply to promote your brand is way over it. Particularly when that conversation is about a topic as important to the people involved as domestic violence.

Just as you shouldn't break into a conversation at a networking event by talking about yourself, so you shouldn't do the same on Twitter. Join the conversation for sure, but on the terms of those already participating, not your own.

But how does a company decide when they shouldn't tweet at all? While I fully understand John Oliver's incredulity at a sex toy company tweeting about 9/11, why shouldn't they? Is he right to see that as controversial? I'm not sure.

What are your thoughts? And if you run a business account, how do you decide what and when to tweet?

You can watch the full John Oliver segment here. Please note that it does contain language some people might find offensive and mild sexual references.

This week (September 22nd to 26th) is Social Media Week. Check the website for details of events near you.