August 3, 2012 6:34 pm

Twitter examines its loyalties

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Michael Phelps©Reuters

Criticism of NBC's time-delayed Olympics coverage in the US included that of record-breaking swimmer Michael Phelps

In May 2010, a self-professed “guy in his boxer shorts” opened a Twitter account named @BPGlobalPR, and quickly became a media sensation. He pilloried BP’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, wittily and mercilessly, in apparent breach of Twitter’s guidelines around impersonation.

The page attracted hundreds of thousands of followers and tweeted edgy gags for more than two weeks before it was politely asked to note on its profile that it was, in fact, a spoof.

Two years later, a Twitter critic has again hit the headlines for lambasting a major brand, TV network NBC, over its time-delayed Olympics coverage – but this time the microblogging site’s response was more extreme. The Independent journalist Guy Adams was this week briefly suspended from the site for posting an allegedly private email address of an NBC executive.

Social media remains the go-to place for dedicated campaigners and armchair critics alike to vent their rage at faceless corporations. But as Facebook and Twitter become more reliant on advertising from big brands and partnerships with traditional media companies, businesses and individual users are more closely scrutinising how they deal with brand abuse on their platforms.

The question of whether Twitter’s first loyalties were to users or advertisers was cast into sharp relief by Mr Adams’ case, particularly since it was Twitter’s own employees who pointed out to NBC that Mr Adams had broken the site’s rules.

This year is also the first time that Twitter, together with NBC, have created a page of handpicked tweets under the #Olympics tag – a move to create a safe environment for advertisers such as McDonald's and P&G. After a day of outcry, Twitter restored Mr Adams’ feed, apologised and admitted: “We did mess up.”

“We will actively work to ensure this does not happen again,” said Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel, in a blog post.

Twitter’s Trust and Safety team does enforce its rules against misused trademarks, “username squatting”, impersonation that is “intended to mislead” and other forms of brand abuse. But they normally act only after receiving a complaint.

“This isn’t like an airline, where you have so many people that work there for customer care. Social networks don’t have the people,” says Sarah Hofstetter, president of 360i, a digital advertising agency owned by Dentsu.

Besides the NBC case, there have been other examples this week indicating that companies are now more aware of potential reputational damage on social networks, and are taking more robust action to defend themselves.

Northcliffe, the regional newspaper division of British publisher DMGT, took legal action in the US to unmask a persistent anonymous impersonator of its chief executive, alleging criminal behaviour.

But such heavy-handed actions can sometimes backfire. The press attention added hundreds more to the offending account’s followers, and DMGT has since dropped the case.

Robin Grant, managing director of We Are Social, a social media agency, says this is known in the trade as the “Streisand Effect”, after singer Barbra Streisand’s 2003 legal fight to suppress private photographs simply publicised their existence. “The brand’s response can be the trigger for a crisis,” Mr Grant says. “Brands need to show that they’re listening and respond in a human way.”

Perhaps that is why “rogue” accounts such as @KFC, an occasional purveyor of bad-taste chicken jokes with 4,400 followers, and @ShellisPrepared, a parodic campaign to protect Arctic wildlife with 3,500 followers, remain uncensored and uncensured by the afflicted brands.

The problem is proliferating as the number of social networks explode. As many as two-thirds of top brands do not own the accounts with their names on Pinterest, the fast-growing photo-sharing site, according to FairWinds Partners, an online brand protection firm. “Pinterest’s rapid ascent came out of nowhere. It caught brand owners by surprise,” says Josh Bourne, managing partner of FairWinds.

Taking a username back is difficult. While US federal statutes prevent cybersquatting for website domain names, there are no similar protections for social media. Pinterest said: “Having brands be properly represented is important to us and we encourage trademark owners to contact us.”

The social networking sites, meanwhile, each have different terms and can be slow to respond to trademark complaints. Also, if a fake corporate account clearly is a parody, the dialogue is protected as free speech, Mr Bourne says.

All of this means that deciding how and whether to react is complicated. “It is all about prioritisation,” Ms Hofstetter of 360i says. “There is so much going on that marketers have to figure out what is the tipping point from annoyance to impactful.”

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