Category Archives: Crisis Communications

Treat the Cause, Not the Symptoms

With technological advances come new perils for the workplace that have both operational and brand protection implications.

  • A physician office manager posts a comment on social media inquiring about a patient’s specific medical condition, resulting in a HIPAA violation.
  • An unencrypted flash drive with protected health information (PHI) is stolen from the vehicle of a physician practice employee, costing the practice fines of $150,000.
  • A health plan’s photocopiers are returned to a leasing agent still containing PHI stored on their hard drives, resulting in a $1.2 million settlement.

Incidents like these examples result in ramifications from negative publicity to hefty fines and other enforcement every day.

So what’s an organization to do?

Unfortunately, some organizations approach the issue by treating the symptoms instead of the cause, banning social media in the workplace altogether (good luck with that in the era of the smartphone, by the way) or locking USB ports to prevent users from plugging in removable flash drives. (The latter in no way prevents an unscrupulous employee from simply uploading data to the cloud or emailing it, of course.)

You wouldn’t ban office supplies because you had an employee who was stealing them, or rid the office of computers because of an employee who prefers video games to work. You’d warn, discipline or dismiss the employee. New-age disciplinary problems need to be treated similarly by addressing the problem employee behavior, not the digital platform via which it occurred.

While there’s no easy fix to certain high-stakes risks, smart organizational leaders ensure they have proper policies, procedures and plans in place, that employees receive proper training and periodic re-training, and take the appropriate disciplinary actions against employees who violate policies.

How many of these policies and plans does your organization have in place to help protect itself from reputational harm?

1. A clear, strong social media policy, updated regularly as the world of social media evolves. If large, publicly held companies like Coca-Cola can have both a social media policy and a robust social engagement strategy, your organization can, too.

2. Healthcare providers and other “covered entities” as defined by HIPAA will find a social media policy is just as important as its other HIPAA-related policies and procedures. These policies are essential to ensure the organization is doing everything it should to safeguard protected health information (PHI).

3. Beyond PHI, data breach is a constant concern for organizations from national retailers to local school systems that hold personally identifiable information (PII). Along with adequate data protection protocols, any organization with records that contain PII should establish a clear data breach response plan to ensure a prompt response and mitigate negative consequences in the event of a breach.

4. Speaking of responding promptly and mitigating consequences, does your organization have a crisis response plan? “Unimaginable” crises can range from a shooter in the workplace to major fire or flood damage to allegations of criminal activity or the unexpected death of a high-profile company executive. Smart organizations don’t leave such things to chance; they have a thorough plan for how their team will react in a time of crisis to minimize impacts to customers, employees and reputation.

If you have all the applicable policies, procedures and plans in place, congratulations. You’re on the right track. But don’t forget, without the proper employee training and retraining to go with them, they’re just taking up space on your bookshelf…or your server. Do your policies – and the way you use them – need a check-up?

 

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Study: Facebooking During a Crisis is Good PR

A new study shows that posting to Facebook during a time of crisis can help improve an organization’s overall image.

Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Journalism created two fictional universities and gave study participants news stories about crises occurring at each. After the participants read the stories, the researchers measured participants’ attitudes toward each institution, as well as their perceptions of the severity of each crisis. Then participants were shown Facebook posts from the universities’ main Facebook accounts that delivered additional information and messages directly from the universities. Researchers tested attitudes once more.

After reading the Facebook posts, participants’ attitudes were significantly more positive than they had been after reading the news stories alone. Participants also thought the crises were less severe following the Facebook posts.

Study author Seoyeon Hong said:  “Many studies have already shown how important crisis management is for organizations. This study shows that Facebook can be a valuable tool for public relations professionals when working to solve or lessen the severity of a crisis. Because Facebook is very personal for its users, well-thought-out crisis management messages can be effective at reaching users on a personal level, which is a powerful way to persuade people to a cause.”

We’d like to know what you think. Would reading about a crisis from an organization’s Facebook account improve your perception? Or have you ever used social media to help communicate during a crisis?

Leave your story in the comments below.

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When Two Worlds Collide: M&A Communications During the Integration Challenge

As a professional with extensive experience in international mergers and acquisitions, I often hear that mergers and acquisitions rarely live up to the original intent behind the deal.  Bain & Company recently published a report of their findings from research they conducted on M&A activity from 2000 to 2010, and they found that companies that pursued mergers and acquisitions as part of their growth strategy outpaced the growth of companies that did not.  Most interestingly, companies with more aggressive M&A strategies outperformed companies with moderate M&A activity.

Negative sentiment toward M&A is largely framed by the big failures – like the AOL and When Two Worlds Collide: M&A Communications Time Warner merger, the largest merger in corporate history. (At the time of that merger, I was working with Vodafone, based in the U.K., on their hostile bid for Mannesmann in Germany, an acquisition also discussed as the largest merger on record.  With AOL Time Warner’s friendly announcement, the Vodafone Mannesmann merger which followed soon thereafter became the largest hostile bid on record.) The reasons for failed mergers are many, but in my experience, successful integration of the merged companies poses one of the greatest obstacles to success.

Companies generally do a very good job of defining the rationale for an M&A deal and conducting the required due diligence to ensure the right fit.  Unfortunately, after investing substantial money, time, and energy into making the deal happen, management teams often fail to plan adequately for assimilating the two corporate cultures into a new cohesive unit.  Constructive integration is doable, and management teams can plan ahead for a successful M&A outcome:

1)      Assign a dedicated team focused exclusively on the tasks following the announcement.  As an extension of the due diligence team and within the dictates of regulatory guidelines related to the industry and the specific transaction, this integration team should be appointed as soon as management begins its due diligence so that the team has ample time to develop a comprehensive integration plan.  You might think this timing is premature given that so many deals don’t make it through the due-diligence process.  But companies lose valuable time and momentum when they wait until the closing of the deal.  One critical mistake in the integration process:  management teams spend too much time trying to find the answers to very important questions after the deal is signed when they should be executing decisions made far in advance.

2)      Define how the merged company will look in six months and in one year, and then develop the action plan that will get you there. Companies have very specific objectives with each merger or acquisition.  Make sure the merged company stays true to those objectives, and consider the impact those objectives will have on every business unit, employee, and customer, and be aware of the changes that will have to occur to reach the six-month and one-year corporate vision.

3)      Test the action plan to ensure that it matches the original rationale and objectives of the merger.  Make sure you consider all scenarios and outcomes.  Integration teams can reduce the risk of failure when they identify the pitfalls before they happen.

4)      Consider your audiences.  Employees, customers, and business partners have firm loyalties, and a merged company must develop strategies to win these individuals and groups over to a new corporate culture and brand.

5)      Develop effective messaging.  Just because you understand the rationale of the merger doesn’t mean everyone else does.  Each audience has unique motivators that bring them to the brand.  Some of these motivators are rational and some are emotional.  Effective messaging will be consistent across all groups, but it will also be specific to address the motivators of each group.

Change is hard.  Even though the benefits of the merger or acquisition are real, employees will have adjustments to make and new relationships to build.  Customers may be asked to embrace a new, or at least modified, brand despite the fact that they love the old one.  Business partners may question their relevance in the newly merged entity.  These are just some of the audiences.  Integration strategy plans for all these scenarios – and many more!  It is about more than announcing the deal in an email.  A successful integration plan brings people together as a team to appreciate the value of the newly merged or acquired company.

M&A can bring dynamic opportunities to a company:  expanded markets, diverse customers, innovative technologies, and new products.  Companies need not fear M&A activity as long as management understands the merger is not completed with the announcement or closing of the deal.  The real work has just begun.  With appropriate advance planning and timely implementation of the integration plan, companies can improve their competitive strength with sales growth, profit growth, and shareholder value.

 

 

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Medical drama misses mark on crisis PR

I’ve always been a fan of the television medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” a show that follows the fictional lives of surgical interns and residents as they evolve into expert physicians at a Seattle hospital. Even in the seasons when the writers seemed to be on an extended vacation (season four), the show’s complex characters and medical challenges have continued to hold my interest.

Usually, when the show’s medical content strays from reality, I don’t let it bother me. After all, it’s fiction. But a few weeks ago, “Grey’s” ventured into hospital crisis communications – or rather, a fictionalized version of it – and I couldn’t keep myself from feeling agitated.

Here’s the short version: The hospital discovers that one of its surgeons has unknowingly passed a fatal infection to several patients. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has investigators on site who pinpoint the source of the problem and provide oversight for eradicating the issue. One hospital leader suggests putting out a press release explaining why the CDC is in town, but his colleagues nix the idea. Viewers are left to believe the hospital sits on its hands in terms of communications (and does a bad job of dodging patient questions) until it simply issues a press release after the crisis is over. And by “issuing a press release” I mean handing it to a young patient who wants to be a journalist so she can scoop the other media in town.

Are you ripping your hair out yet? The show completely ignores the communications steps that a hospital should, and hopefully would, take during such a crisis. In fact, nobody even seems that concerned with developing a crisis communications plan to answer questions from patients, staff and the general public. There’s no talk of how the news could negatively impact the hospital’s reputation and admissions if it isn’t handled properly. Who knows what was in that press release handed over with such nonchalance, but I guess the hospital thinks it says enough to avoid the likely storm of negative press and frightened calls from patients.

Of course, as anyone who has ever seen public relations portrayed in mainstream media knows, it’s highly unlikely that a medical drama would take the time to give crisis communications the airtime it could consume. But it made me wonder why, if it was going to get such flippant treatment, was communication strategy mentioned at all.

You may not be a “Grey’s” fan, but I know you know what I’m talking about. What is your favorite – or least favorite – television portrayal of public relations?

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Lululemon Navigates ‘The Great American Yoga Pant Crisis’

While walking by a Lululemon Athletica Inc. store in Nashville last week, I noticed the words “The Great American Yoga Pant Crisis” across the store front window. Thank goodness we survived the controversy, but will the company?

Since Lululemon last month announced a recall of women’s black Luon yoga pants due to sheerness and issued a warning of a yoga pants shortage, there has been a steady media buzz on the story from parodies on late night talk shows to social media. News outlets around the globe seem unable to resist the temptation to make a pun in the headlines.

All jokes aside, the recall amounts to 17 percent of all women’s pants sold in Lululemon stores and the company adjusted their first quarter revenue projections down between $333 million to $343 million from previous expected revenues between $350 million to $355 million. With competitors such as Nike and Under Armour trying to woo customers through aggressive campaigns, the quality control issue at Lululemon is a serious one.

Last week, the company announced its chief product officer was stepping down, and they instituted new senior level capabilities in quality, raw materials and production. These actions are positive steps to remedy the situation and avoid a repeat in the future that will go a long way to ensure consumer and shareholder confidence. Consider the following tips to successfully navigate a PR crisis:

Take responsibility. In the case of Lululemon, the company initially stated quality problems were due to an overseas supplier. The company later accepted partial responsibility and said its testing protocols were incomplete and the fabric used in the pants was “on the low end of Lululemon’s tolerance scale” Accepting responsibility for the lapse in quality was the right move to help restore trust in the company’s leadership and products.

Act swiftly. Once you know the facts on the issue, scope and potential impact on the company, develop a communications action plan and follow it through. It’s critical to have the necessary tools in place to effectively communicate to both internal and external audiences. These tools should include key messages, FAQs, media response statements, social media responses and internal communications such as a letter to employees so everyone is informed and empowered to communicate to key stakeholders as appropriate.

Respect customers. Customers are more powerful than ever, taking to social networks to rave about their favorite brands and rant about them when they make a mistake. In light of the yoga pants issue, Lululemon pulled products from store shelves and offered refunds to customers. The refund policy initially drew some criticism but was clarified and ultimately a successful strategy to repair customer relationships and get beyond the controversy.

Lululemon may have taken a few hits when the story broke but as long as the company continues to focus on improving its production processes they should be able to weather this storm with their reputation and loyal customers intact.

What do you think? How did Lululemon handle the PR crisis? What impact will it have on the company?

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Don’t Mind the Bed Bugs, and Other Communication Tips

For the past year, my fiancé and I have been renting a condo in a large and fairly new building in Washington, D.C. To keep residents informed of the various condo goings-on, the community manager distributes a weekly e-newsletter.

On occasion, we’ll get an unscheduled newsletter if there is an immediate issue or concern. Like the email we received at 8:18 p.m. on a recent Thursday, titled: Notice of Bedbug Sighting in Nearby Unit.

The email contained a short message referring to an attached notice and brochure and inviting recipients to “let me know if you have any questions.” Here’s the text of the email, with some of the building specifics removed: 

Please be advised that bed bugs were reported in a nearby unit. That unit is scheduled for treatment by a pest control company tomorrow. Management will obtain information from that company as to the observations and level of infestation as well as recommendations for additional treatment in nearby units. Should treatment in your Unit be recommended, you will be contacted by Management for scheduling.  

In the meantime, it is strongly recommended that you read the attached brochure, “Preventing and Getting Rid of Bed Bugs Safely” and inspect your unit for bed bugs according to the instructions.

Within the pest control industry, bed bugs are considered to be among the most insidious of pests and determining the origin of bed bugs in any given dwelling is nearly impossible due to their transient nature. While they are not known to transmit disease, their presence may cause a variety of negative physical health, mental health and economic consequences.

Community Management takes a very proactive and strategic approach to addressing the potential threat of bed bug infestation. Effective detection and elimination of bed bugs is a team effort; your cooperation is appreciated. 

The attached brochure was published by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene but the information is equally appurtenant to residents in Washington, D.C.

At that moment, I had lots of questions, such as:

  • What does “nearby” mean? Are we talking next door or four doors down?
  • The attached guide says all units adjacent, above and below should be inspected. Does that mean we’ll get another notice tomorrow if we are, in fact, next to an infested unit?
  • Who tells someone that their bed could be infested with bugs just hours before bedtime?
  • OMG, are we going to have to move?

The dinner that I had just put on the table sat steaming while we took flashlights to every mattress seam, baseboard crack and couch cushion in the apartment. Though we found no evidence of bugs, my skin crawled all evening and felt suspiciously itchy all night.

And it turns out the whole thing was a false alarm. From the next day’s newsletter: “A resident reported seeing one bed bug in their unit this week… The exterminator reported to management that no evidence of bed bugs was found in the unit.”

It got me to thinking about how this situation could have been handled better, so people (me) would not lose their minds mere hours before lights out. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to communicate some potentially distressing information, balancing (1) the possibility that nothing is wrong and you are needlessly scaring people, and (2) the possibility that not informing people will make the suspected problem worse (bugs, bugs everywhere), I’d recommend:

  • Get the facts – preferably all of them, or as many as you can – before doing anything else. We were talking about one bug. From what I’ve heard and read, these guys don’t leave home without their extended families, so I’m convinced it was something else entirely.
  • Be clear and be thorough. Choose your words wisely, try to anticipate questions and provide clear and complete answers in your communications. (What time was the pest control company coming? When will you notify us of the results? WHAT DOES NEARBY MEAN?)
  • Be responsive. When you receive questions, respond in timely manner.
  • Offer reassurance. The above email told me that bed bugs bite, it’s nearly impossible to determine their origin, and they can make you sick and/or crazy. It did not ask recipients to remain calm or offer assurances that every step would be taken to eradicate an infestation, should one be detected. (“addressing the potential threat” is not “killing the bugs.”)
  • Follow-up when more information becomes available. Thankfully, the community manager got this one right.

Is your skin crawling? I’d love to hear about your experiences with questionable communications practices, or how you would have handled this situation. Leave a comment!

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It’s Etch A Sketch in a Landslide!

Every consumer brand dreams of a high-profile mention that suddenly propels its product it into the national spotlight.  Right?  Well, maybe.  What if the attention comes in a politically-charged environment?

That’s the situation in which Ohio Art, creator of Etch A Sketch, recently found itself. And the way the company responded is an excellent example of “grace under pressure” and great marketing.

Etch A Sketch’s moment in the spotlight came as the result of a comment made by an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In describing his candidate’s political positions, the aide said, “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You kind of shake it up and restart it all over again.”

The comment went viral and Ohio Art found itself with a potential opportunity or PR nightmare on its hands, depending on how you look at it. To its immense credit, the company made the most of its unintended moment of fame without weighing into a politically charged debate or alienating Americans of either the Republican or Democratic political parties.

Thus was born the Shake It Up, America website.  The home page states:

We stand firmly behind our proclamation that “We have a left knob and a right knob for each political party.” And “…when both work together, we can do loop de loops.” We’re especially serious about the loop do loops part. We call on you to shake it up, America! Exercise your freedom of self-expression by voting on Election Day, and drawing on your Etch A Sketch every day. Our political neutrality is unflappable. And our stance on self-expression is unshakable.”

A new ad campaign released in conjunction with the website featured headlines like:

“We have a left knob and a right knob for each political party.”

“Etch A Sketch is a lot like politics – there’s a lot of gray area.”

“Politically, we lean right down the middle. Which way do you lean?”

Each ad ends with the same statement at the bottom: “Etch A Sketch is proud to be part of the national debate.”

Brilliant!

But wait, it gets better!  Now you can not only purchase Etch A Sketch with its traditional red frame, soon you can buy a blue or flag-themed version of the toy.

It’s a real pleasure to see how this iconic American brand took the high road, encouraged citizens to exercise their right to vote and turned an opportunity into a playful and notable campaign. And I know which color Etch A Sketch I’m ordering. How about you?

 

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Virtual Meetings – How to Use Skype for Internal Communications

Today, companies can be widely dispersed. Employees may live in different cities or countries from where the organizations are centrally located. Younger generations may request working from home or the local coffee shop, saying they feel more comfortable and inspired outside of an office setting. Some companies may not even have an office, but a team of mobile employees collaborating through various new technologies. So what happens when an important discussion needs to take place between members of an organization who are not located in the same area? Well, you have the next best thing: a virtual meeting.

There are MANY services available to conduct virtual meetings; from highly robust and paid services to free and simple ones. Recently updated, the Google+ platform allows for online video conferencing which it calls “Hangouts.” Other major services include GoToMeeting and Cisco’s WebEx. And did you know Facebook also allows for video chats between friends?

Facebook video conferencing is actually powered by one of our favorite services that we highly recommend, Skype. Skype can be used for free video conferencing directly with another Skype user, including online messaging and file sending.  We recommend Skype to clients as a way to conduct meetings between organizational employees when not located in close enough proximity. If you haven’t tried it out already and would like to, Skype requires a quick set-up process before online communication can begin. To make it easy for you, we’ve created a How to Set Up Skype video below that will walk you through the process.

What services do you like using for virtual meetings? Please let us know your recommendations in the comments below!

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Costa to Concordia Passengers: “Ya’ll Come Back Now, You Hear!”

I was interested in the crisis communications response of Costa Cruises, its parent Carnival Corporation, and the cruise industry overall to the wreck of the Costa Concordia even before the latest gaffe.  In a stunning new development this week, Costa Cruises offered passengers of the doomed Concordia’s January 13 sailing a 30 percent discount on their next cruise. Tasteless falls hopelessly short of properly characterizing this offer, made shortly after a 13th victim was recovered from the vessel and with 19 passengers still missing.

Even before this development, which should feed satirists and late night comedians for days, I was underwhelmed by the company’s response. Nowhere on the Carnival Cruise website will you find reference to the incident, and only by digging into the Carnival Corporation Investor Relations page will you do so. The Costa Cruise website, in contrast, does feature YouTube video excerpts from a press conference with its CEO that took place three days after the incident. However, the CEO’s delivery of remarks read in English, obviously not his first language as he pronounces lawsuit “law-sweet,” does not impart the level of personal warmth, engagement and concern that such situations demand. Still, it was a real person – at last – as for the first day and a half, Costa and Carnival communicated only through news releases. In contrast, Carnival received substantial praise for its handling of a November 2010 fire on the Carnival Splendor that left 4,500 passengers and crew stranded adrift for days. I doubt similar praise will follow this incident, despite the nifty 30 percent discount offer.

As for the industry, the Cruise Lines International Association expressed its condolences in the second-to-last sentence of a three-paragraph statement issued three days after the incident. The sentence before that statement reads: “Accidents such as this one are an extremely rare occurrence in the cruise industry, and cruising continues to be one of the safest means of travel among all types of vacationing.” I do think they might have managed to get to the condolences a bit quicker.

In Italy, Gianni Scerni, president of RINA, which is a classification organization that issues certificates of seaworthiness for vessels, including the Concordia, resigned surprisingly within hours of publication of an article in which he criticized Costa management. Scerni reportedly expressed doubt that Costa was unaware of the routine and very dangerous practice of “saluting” the island of Giglio by passing close to it, despite such incidents having been captured on YouTube and statements made by the ship’s second officer that the salute occurred “fairly often.” This dismissal could certainly be perceived, correctly or incorrectly, as the industry closing ranks to protect its own at the expense of a clear airing of the facts in this tragic story.

In the end, the cruise industry – including Costa and Carnival – are not likely to suffer much from this incident, despite the pictures that will remain in file footage and our mind’s eyes for years to come. It’s reported that just days after the accident, cruise bookings actually increased as savvy cruise regulars began seizing the opportunity to take advantage of discounts and specials being offered by nervous cruise lines.

What are your perceptions of the handling of this crisis by the cruise lines and the industry? Do you feel their crisis communication response to the Costa Concordia incident has been adequate?

 

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The Tweet that Saved the Jailbird

Ever said something that had way bigger consequences than you imagined it would?  Ever sent a Tweet, or made a post, or even hit send on an email that ended up being circulated to a group much larger than you intended? Ever gotten someone off death row?

Arkansas resident Randy Franco can answer “yes” in all cases.

Franco was a juror in a 2010 capital trial in which Erickson Dimas-Martinez was found guilty and sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murder of an Arkansas teenager.

nashville PR firm discusses juror tweet

Disregarding the judge’s admonitions against the use of electronic communications during the trial, Franco tweeted several musings like, “Choices to be made. Hearts to be broken. We each define the great line,” and, “If its [sic] wisdom we seek …We should run to the strong tower.” Franco also wrote, “Its [sic] over,” 45 minutes prior to the court’s public announcement of the guilty verdict.

After the conclusion of the trial, the court discovered the tweets and questioned Franco, who argued he had not given specifics about the case. He claimed his tweets did not suggest he had made up his mind before all of the facts had been presented.

An Arkansas circuit court agreed with Franco and denied Dimas-Martinez’s motion for a new trial. However, the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned that decision last week and concluded that it was inappropriate for a juror to post information or thoughts about the case on a public outlet, regardless of whether the discussion was one-sided.

While the Dimas-Martinez case may bring about new guidelines regarding the use of social media and mobile devices in court, Twitter mishaps like Franco’s happen more often than they should. Below are a few things to keep in mind when managing Twitter account(s):

Know your followers.

One of Franco’s followers was allegedly a reporter. Had Franco monitored his followers more closely, he may have given second thought to broadcasting his tweet about the case to a journalist. Determine the demographic you are trying to reach on Twitter and be specific in those you follow.

Protect your tweets.

If your Twitter account is for personal use, you may want to set your account to private to allow views from approved subscribers only. While it’s best to leave business Twitter accounts public, it’s a good idea to take the content of personal accounts into consideration and use privacy settings accordingly.

Fine-tune your message.

In the conversation with the judge, Franco had a hard time justifying what he meant by some of his tweets. In this case, the juror used the tweet’s ambiguity for his advantage, claiming that the message was neutral –later clarifying that “define the great line” was a reference to an album by the band Underoath. Although Franco should not have gone against court orders to tweet, had he been less ambiguous in his message he may have had a stronger argument. Make sure your tweet is clear and well thought out.

Think before you tweet.

In today’s social media world, impulsiveness often results in a PR crisis. Much like firing off that angry email, posting a tweet in the heat of the moment can have dire consequences. Along these lines, be sure you are posting from the correct Twitter handle. As we’ve seen in the past, there have been several examples of tweets gone haywire when someone who manages Twitter messaging for both business and personal reasons makes an errant post from the wrong account.

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