“Everyone has made mistakes. I just make them in public.”
That was the infamous, outspoken, bragadocious Kanye West (@kanyewest)—the man Twitter users love to hate—on his Twitter page on March 22. But those words could be the mantra of virtually every celebrity who takes to social media: At one time or another, they’re all going to tweet without thinking, react too quickly, respond to a fan too harshly, or mistakenly post a private message on their public page. Then the predictable happens: All hell breaks loose.
What is it about social media that makes people—celebrities in particular—let down their guard in ways they never would if they were out in public? Except that they are out in public, given that every word is being scrutinized and every video being viewed thousands of times. And backlash can be swift and ferocious. Some celebrities, like Kanye, seem unfazed by the ridicule and rage they inspire. Others get blindsided by the tidal wave of reaction.
Still others—George Clooney comes to mind—stay off of social media altogether. “There's a real danger when you're really famous,” Clooney once said about social media. “I can have a drink or two at night; I don't need to have an apparatus that, in a drunken joke, even, I could say something, go to sleep, and wake up in the morning and my career be over."
So what’s the answer? Forego social media—and all the adulation and even goodwill it can create? Hire a social media management expert to run your Twitter and Facebook pages—and risk losing authenticity and credibility with scripted tweets? Or just go it alone and hope for the best?
“There are pros and cons to using an outside agency,” says Katie Wagner, a social media guru and founder of Katie Wagner Social Media. “On the one hand, it’s great because you have someone managing your platforms 24/7 and that frees up your time to do other things. On the other hand, you need to be able to trust someone else to represent you, so you want to be sure they really know you and your brand.”
A combination of the two works well for people like President Obama (@POTUS) and Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama), who have expert staff to run their accounts (ensuring nothing ever goes off-message), but who occasionally write their own tweets to keep their pages real, signing them “bo” or “mo.”
Of course, using an agency would never work for someone like Carrie Fisher (@carrieffisher), who has created a totally distinctive, eccentric, and unfake-able voice on Twitter, where her 1.02 million fans love every wacky word. Fisher, unlike younger, up-and-coming celebrities, has the advantage of being nearly immune to criticism.
Others definitely feel the flames—including celebrities who “accidentally” post semi-nude selfies, make political statements that backfire, and get into cat fights via tweets. How can celebrities avoid social media blunders?
“For starters, they should think before they react,” says Wagner. “And remember that when you post something on your social media channels, it takes on a life of its own.”
Even when stars immediately delete their offending tweets, they can be assured that some clever fan has already grabbed a screen shot that will be retweeted forever. So what should a celebrity do if he or she says something that backfires?
“Own it and apologize for it,” Wagner says. “Try to get out in front of it before it goes viral because it’s not going to go away. Waiting to do something just makes it worse because it will percolate and eventually spread around until it’s larger than life.”
To Wagner’s advice, I would add:
1. If you choose to be on social media, be real: You can use an agency to manage the logistics of your accounts, but make sure the voice is yours. Fans can spot the difference.
2. Don’t drink and tweet. Not even once.
3. Don’t react to any controversy in the heat of the moment—information changes, and you could find yourself looking stupid if you speak too soon. The exception is when a fellow celebrity dies: Offering a heartfelt tribute or a personal memory will comfort fans (and boost your goodwill).
4. Don’t just promote yourself—engage with fans occasionally, answer questions, wish children happy birthday…these things will truly endear yourself to the public.
5. Remember that a good sense of humor (on and off social media) will get you far.
Now how do I say that in 140 characters?