Why companies will stick with Twitter

By Felix Salmon
June 21, 2010

I was offline for much of Friday for various reasons, with the World Cup not even being the main one. Instead, I was across the street from Reuters, at the Nasdaq, sitting on one panel and giving a keynote speech to a group of financial PR professionals interested in social media in general, and Twitter in particular.

The main thrust of my speech was that if blogs started to blur the distinction between journalists and the public at large, then Twitter has made things even fuzzier: everybody (companies, executives, PRs, hacks, flacks, bloggers, individuals) is interacting on a very level playing field. And insofar as there are certain people on Twitter who are very influential, there’s a good chance that they’re not the journalists at large media outlets whom PR people have historically spent most of their time trying to cultivate.

What’s more, Twitter gives companies the ability to speak directly to the public without going via journalists (or even mere bloggers); and it also allows them to keep tab on what the public thinks without using journalists and media commentators as an imperfect proxy. Public relations is, after all, the art of relating with the public: journalists are just a means to an end. And the public has never been as easy to relate with as it is now, in the age of Twitter.

Which is why I think that Simon Dumenco is wrong. He’s convinced that corporate presence on Twitter is going to end up feeling much more like those toll-free customer service lines, sooner rather than later:

Social-media as a corporate meme is still pretty interesting and exciting and attractive… a lot of the smart, ambitious, college-educated, well-socialized people in corporate environments are getting sucked into social media. Some of these bright young folks can say things like, “Oh, I manage social media for X Corp.” or “I monitor social media for Y Industries” — and it sounds pretty cool. But what they’re really doing is slaving away at a virtual call center. (If Mom and Dad, who helped pay for college, really understood that, they’d weep.)

Which ain’t gonna last. Old-school customer-service phone lines tend to be staffed by not-so-helpful, not-particularly-well-educated, not-so-patient workers because, let’s be honest, talking to cranky, pissy customers is shit work. (Or the call center employees are well-educated, but non-native speakers of English squeezed into cubicles on another continent. Either way, they’re probably biding time.)

But the difference with Twitter is that it’s public. Every so often, some enterprising blogger will put a customer-service call online, to one company’s embarrassment and everybody else’s general merriment. But most of the time, companies can get away with shabby service because they can’t be seen behaving unhelpfully.

A company with a large number of Twitter followers, and which engages helpfully with its customers on Twitter, in full view of the world, is a company which is doing wonders for its reputation and which is well placed to be able to deal nimbly with any reputational problems that might arise. Whereas a company which doesn’t have that infrastructure in place is likely to end up like Eurostar. (Let’s not even get started on BP.)

More generally, Twitter is growing so fast that the executive ranks of most companies are increasingly full of people who use Twitter regularly. Just as corporate flacks try to get interviews with executives into the WSJ because that’s the paper the executives read, they’re also going to try to keep the company’s presence on Twitter high-profile and shiny because that’s something the executives are likely keeping a close eye on themselves.

So expect a lot more pressure, both top-down and bottom-up, on companies to embrace the Twittersphere. Meanwhile, the people being squeezed will be those in the middle, who have to actually implement the corporate response. If the delegates at the conference on Friday are any indication, they’re still a bit slow to engage. But they’ll get there soon. They have no choice.

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