Michelle Obama’s first day on Twitter  was the tweet heard 'round the world, with more than 60,000 followers signing up to follow her the morning she launched. Initial tweets from @MichelleObama noted that her staff would be doing the heavy lifting initially, but that every tweet from the First Lady herself would be signed “mo.” It was a nice touch of transparency, creating excitement without over-promising.
Mrs. Obama’s fellow Twitter-newbie, Rupert Murdoch, however, is off to a rockier start , or so say numerous critics; Murdoch began his Twitter account to thunderously merciless reviews. Among the complaints, he doesn’t include links in his tweets. His tweets have been called “insipid,” “banal,” and “pedestrian.” Most important: readers say Murdoch’s tweets simply don’t add value for his followers.
That value proposition is what really stands out, especially since the issues at stake go well beyond online etiquette and specific best practices. And, they likewise go beyond how individual celebrities in and out of the business arena fare with their often hyper-critical audiences.
More fundamentally, companies of all sizes are now confronting how Twitter strategies align or don’t align with their larger business strategies. Bottom line: Twitter deserves its own strategic plan as a discrete component of the larger corporate digital media plan. After all, Twitter’s speed, capacity, and influence outsize any other social media channel at the moment.
There’s a universe of choice out there in terms of deploying and using Twitter--incuding Twitter's new enhanced brand pages --which means a whole lot to think about as companies try and fail and then finally hit on what works for them. In turn, their Twitter decisions directly affect how they must now fundamentally define their ongoing reputation management and stakeholder outreach. Consider…
Twitter means powerful consumer engagement regardless of whether it is officially labeled customer service. The impact of what Rupert Murdoch does with his Twitter account pales in comparison to the positive lessons we might learn from the Twitter strategy implemented by Best Buy. That company relies on “an army of associates” to handle its various Twitter feeds, reports  the Wall Street Journal. Tweets to Best Buy’s help desk, @Twelpforce, are answered by one of 3,000 Best Buy employees who signed up for the task. Yes, we said 3,000.
Best Buy’s plan has generated mostly good reports over its two-year life span, with no major media controversies. But should every company try something like this? Is two years long enough to assess the impact? Even if the jury is still out, the Best Buy example at least shows exactly how a big company can position Twitter as the centerpiece of its social media strategy.
For Best Buy, such positioning takes on further weight in the aftermath of widespread dissatisfaction over how the company failed to process online purchases in time for Christmas purchases, and CEO Brian Dunn’s controversial recourse to the blogosphere to both apologize and respond to separate criticism he deems unfair. The combined Twitter and blog strategies lend credence to comments by a Best Buy spokesperson who emphasized  the importance of the social media for both the company and Dunn himself.
If nothing else, Best Buy has deeply integrated Twitter into the daily lives of many, many employees. It’s risky, as it poses greater oversight responsibilities. But simply from an internal perspective, it seems a major HR coup and a significant marketing commitment.
Twitter requires a compatible (not over-lawyered) legal culture. Followers expect replies in a day or much sooner. Otherwise, there’s no point, since e-mail can accomplish just as much. Lawyers can do an effective job cutting off or greatly hindering the immediacy Twitter provides and, at some companies, executives defer to their caution.
In this context, it’s important to note that companies such as Comcast happily report  that Twitter has changed their cultures. The response to Comcast’s invigorated Tweeting from consumers and blogger analysts has been notably positive. One commentator  noted that “the only good stories we hear about Comcast customer service come from [Twitter] encounters.”
That was three years ago. Today, the company is rolling out  a marketing campaign targeting younger customers. Without the cultural transformation that brought Twitter into Comcast’s corporate fold, it would be hard to imagine this current campaign standing much chance of success. Of course the lawyers have to be brought to the table, and Comcast’s presumably were. But that doesn’t mean they have to deal the cards.
Twitter requires your team to actually converse. Twitter lets outsiders feel connected to your company, provided team members speak in their own voice. Dedicated staff must therefore have access across the company. Approaches vary. Whole Foods makes use of a single employee to handle its Twitter account, while about 10 Southwest Airlines employees tweet into the night , as late as 11 p.m. central time, to match the flight schedule. Whatever works.
Twitter requires enhanced risk-management preparation. Each tweet can be amplified and rocketed across the galaxy regardless of the number of your Twitter followers, as the Alec Baldwin/American Airlines  fracas demonstrates. Yet the back-and-forth with unhappy customers has potential for great positive impact as well. The world can watch and listen as your company engages, fixes problems, soothes complainers, and shares insight.
That’s a benefit that cannot be weighed simply in the number of Twitter followers accumulated. And it’s a benefit few companies can afford to cede to their competitors.
How does your company approach Twitter? Tell us about it in the comments.
Richard Levick, Esq. President & CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters--from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s prestigious list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.
[Image: Flickr user Te Kotimana ]