With the push of a button, Rep. Anthony Weiner broadcast a lewd photograph over the microblogging service Twitter last month and launched a public relations crisis.
The New York Democrat’s blunder came from the Twitter equivalent of clicking Reply All on an email. Mr. Weiner, whom Time.com named as one of “10 Politicians to Follow” on Twitter, has said he was trying to send a Twitter “direct message,” with a link to the racy image, to only one other user. But he used the wrong coding for the message, which included his and a Seattle student’s Twitter account names, plus a link to the photo. That caused it to be sent to tens of thousands of his Twitter followers. Despite his efforts to delete it, it was quickly archived and retweeted.
Thus did Mr. Weiner join a growing list of politicians, celebrities and companies that have discovered the power online social media have to build an audience—and enable embarrassing goofs.
Social network Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Google Inc.’s YouTube have become standard tools for politicians.
In May, Newt Gingrich used Facebook and Twitter to announce his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
During the blizzard of December 2010, Newark Mayor Cory Booker took to Twitter to help snowed-in constituents, showing up at one home with diapers after a woman tweeted that she had run out.
Yet, with surprising regularity, people in the spotlight also seem to forget how quickly comments on social media services can spread.
An army of social media consultants has sprung up to remind them. “With the Internet, there is a false sense of security,” said Susan Etlinger, an analyst with the consulting firm Altimeter Group, which helps companies set social media strategies. “People still think and behave as though they are communicating one-to-one, when in fact digital communication is a very volatile and sharable thing.”
In 2008, a photo showed up on Facebook of Jon Favreau, a speechwriter for President-elect Barack Obama, showing Mr. Favreau groping a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton. (He apologized to Mrs. Clinton.)
Ken Goldstein, the worldwide media liability expert at Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, says that companies and high profile people alike should think before the tweet. Companies and organizations that tweet should “emulate a newspaper operation,” he said—meaning there should be the equivalent of an editorial structure, where messages and photos are vetted before being sent.
Sometimes, social media amplify bad decisions. In August 2010, the Twitter account for Joe Miller, who was running for Senate in Alaska, essentially compared his opponent, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, to a prostitute.
“What’s the difference between selling out your party’s values and the world’s oldest profession?” said the message under Mr. Miller’s Twitter address.
Mr. Miller said the tweet was sent by a staffer who was temporarily manning his account, adding that the remark reflected “poor judgment” by the unidentified staffer, whom he “relieved of his duties.”
Last year, Sarah Palin tweeted “refudiate,” which wasn’t a proper English word but has since been added to some dictionaries.
Even mundane comments can look like “oversharing” when taken out of context. In May, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) was chastised online for tweeting “Tired of looking and feeling fat. Maybe talking about it publicly will keep me on track as I try to be more disciplined. Off to the gym.”
McCaskill spokesman Trevor Kincaid said that Twitter has nonetheless been a great asset for the senator. “She views it as a mechanism to cut through the filter and communicate directly with people in Missouri,” he said, because “you’re not getting one side of the discussion or another side of the discussion—you’re getting the entire discussion.”