Social media can be a double-edged sword: Businesses know they need it, and spend time and money trying to get the most out of it from a marketing perspective. But for all its advantages, social media's pitfalls are many and can be deadly.

Smart companies have solid social media plans to minimize the danger of ill-conceived employee posts. But what do you do when your CEO goes rogue in a public forum?

Foot-in-Mouth Disease: CEO Edition

One would think someone with the smarts to rise through the ranks to become CEO would have enough common sense to be very careful about what they post online, or say publicly. And yet …

In September 2013, Guido Barilla, chairman of Barilla pasta company, sparked a global controversy when he said, “I would never do a commercial with a homosexual family ….”

Though the comments were made during a radio interview, social media immediately jumped on the statement and amplified the issue. The fallout was brutal. The LGBT community organized an effective boycott, and competitor Bertolli Germany lost no time in posting a photo captioned “pasta and love for all” on its Facebook page. Real damage had been done.

Similarly, when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella misspoke at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, implying that women shouldn't ask for raises, but instead rely on "faith" and "karma," social media exploded.

Digging Out of the Pit

The best practice is to never make a mistake that goes socially viral in the first place. But if that horse has left the barn, what do you do?

  • Apologize: Simplicity is always best here. Numerous apologies (like Barilla's) can have the reverse effect in an already touchy situation, so apologize once (if necessary), keeping it brief, but sincere (like Nadella's). Groveling is not a winning strategy
  • Ignore the trolls: Any online gaffe is likely to bring out the agitators, but engaging them only makes things worse. As difficult as it is, you need to ignore them and resist the temptation to respond to every jab
  • Change: When appropriate, advocate for fundamental change in the corporate climate. Sometimes these mistakes shine a light on deeper issues that need to be addressed

In the case of Barilla, one year after the problematic statement, it looked like a whole new company. Its health care coverage now includes transgender-related care, a lesbian couple has been featured on its website, and the company is a major contributor to LGBT causes. The transformation has been so stunning that the Human Rights Campaign has placed it on its 2015 list of best places for LGBT persons to work.

Learn From Those Who Refuse To

Most who are burned by the fire of social media learn their lesson quickly enough, and are smart enough not to repeat the mistake. But then there are those who like to tempt fate, posting objectionable statements so often that you begin to think they enjoy the uproar.

Consider designer Kenneth Cole, who during the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square tweeted, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online ….” When the inevitable backlash hit, Cole apologized and the offending tweet was removed.

Learning Opportunities

However, two years later in response to the carnage in Syria he tweeted, “’Boots on the ground’ or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear.”

Once is a mistake, more often is a habit.

Of note, both tweets came from Cole's personal account — not his company's account. Just another reason your company's social media policy needs to include clear guidelines for posting about work from personal accounts.

Of course, when your name IS the company name, it doesn't make much of a difference.

Boss's Opinions Not My Own

It can be challenging to work in an environment where emotions overtake common sense — especially when such off-the-cuff remarks go public. If making sweeping changes, like Barilla did, aren't an option, your best bet may be to try in the future to avoid working for a company with such a volatile personality at its head.

At the end of the day, the only actions you can control are your own. CEOs should be the ones setting a good example, but even if they don't, you can. And if your CEO decides to step in it online (or elsewhere), at least you'll know how to clean up their mess.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Kurayba 

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