Why Walmart Execs Are Smart To Stay Off Twitter

The Harvard Business Review thinks that Walmart senior execs should be on Twitter. It wrote:

“Last week, Walmart found itself in a Twitter tussle with actor Ashton Kutcher over the company’s controversial low wages. Kutcher tweeted at the company, saying “Walmart is your profit margin so important you can’t Pay Your Employees enough to be above the poverty line?” with a link to a post on The Wire about the employee food drive. The Walmart PR account tweeted back, saying, “It’s unfortunate that an act of human kindness has been taken so out of context. We’re proud of our associates in Canton.” Throughout the back-and-forth, Walmart came off as defensive and tweeted facts that some have recognized as a bit murky: ‘We think you’re missing a few things. The majority of our workforce is full-time and makes more than $25,000/year.'”

The author of the blog post went on to say:

“Think how differently this might have unfolded if a senior executive actually responsible for labor practices had read and responded to Kutcher’s comment — and all of the other tweets that stemmed from the exchange.”

My take: I am thinking how differently things might have unfolded — and can only conclude that nothing would have been different. 

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Social media gurus cling to this notion that all senior execs at companies need to be on Twitter. Nonsense. Debunked that bad idea here

In this particular example, however, there’s one overriding reason why Walmart senior execs were wise to stay out of the Twitter fray (and it’s the reason why the PR person should have stayed away, as well):

The cards are stacked against a controversial company. 

By “stacked” I mean, the Twittersphere has already decided innocence or guilt long before the firm in question says anything on Twitter in response to an attack or challenge. 

Other people have observed how left-leaning the Twittersphere is. But even right-leaning, hard-core free-market capitalist tweeters aren’t going to come to Walmart’s defense on Twitter. 

Defending Walmart on Twitter is like rooting for the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. 

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At the recent BAI conference, former Walmart CEO Lee Scott told a story about how, back in 2008, he met (secretly) with a Democratic presidential candidate (whom he would not mention by name). 

Scott told of how he came armed with employment statistics disproving the candidate’s public statements regarding Walmart’s employment practices.

According to Scott, the candidate asked “Why are you showing me all of this?” To which Scott reportedly replied “So the next time you say what you said in public both you and I will know you’re lying.” Little surprise that the data presented to him did nothing to change what he said about Walmart. 

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Social media gurus preach about how social media can help companies connect with customers and prospects. But they apparently ignore the downside of this proposition.

Namely, that participating in social media may do nothing to improve a controversial reputation, and that, in fact, may actually harm it. 

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The author of the HBR blog concludes that:

[T]he key is not immediacy, but seniority.

I see absolutely no evidence supporting this claim.

Did the Twittersphere assume that the Walmart PR response to Kutcher came from low-ranking employees? Doubtful. I would bet that a lot of Tweeters, as I do, assume that the Walmart PR account follows guidelines established by senior execs. And that, possibly, the response was actually vetted with senior execs before it was tweeted.
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Ask Brett King, whose blog post about how his travails regarding how his HSBC account was closed, whether or not he cares whether or not the CEO of HSBC responded on Twitter or not. Betcha $5 he says he would have appreciated a timely response from anyone at HSBC over a late response from a senior exec. 

The general public doesn’t know most Fortune 500 execs from Adam. They want a response — which they interpret as being the “official” response — regardless of who at the company comes from.

And in the Walmart/Kutcher case, I would argue that Walmart’s best response would have been “@Ashton We believe your stats are off. But this is not the most effective place to have this discussion. Let’s meet in person.” 

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The author of the blog goes on to say:

“We are left with half-truths driving the corporate use of social media. Nominally employed to foster transparency, frontline communicators are actually there all too often to form a barrier between the public and corporate executives.”

Funny, because it’s blog posts like the one in HBR which create the half-truths (like the key is not immediacy, but seniority). 

Again, I see little evidence supporting this claim. I certainly can’t speak to anywhere close to a majority of firms, but the financial services firms I’ve spoken to are hardly creating “barriers” between the public and their senior execs. 

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Bottom line: HBR got it wrong. Walmart senior execs shouldn’t be on Twitter. They were wise to stay away.

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