Big, Bureaucratic Companies Aren’t Great at Twitter

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Quick, try to think of a corporation that does Twitter well. We’ll wait.

Time’s up. You didn’t, did you? The reason is because a company, almost by definition, can’t do social media. Oh, a few manage a decent tweet now and again. But Twitter is better suited for human conversations than corporate image-polishing.

This is because of the “social” in social media. The word itself almost tells you all you need to know, as defined by Merriam-Webster: “of or relating to human society, the interaction of the individuals and the group.” Note that corporate branding isn’t any part of that definition.

We were reminded of this earlier this week, thanks to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s now-deleted tweet that poverty-shamed those who are broke.

Big, Bureaucratic Companies Aren’t Great at Twitter

Pity the unfortunate 20-something social-media worker at JPMorgan who was only trying to do the impossible: make a giant money-center bank look hip and appealing to millennials.

The response was immediate and brutal, especially in light of the recent grilling U.S Representative Katie Porter inflicted on JPMorgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon, in which she asked why the bank didn’t pay its employees enough to cover normal household expenses. Dimon’s answers, for the record, were pure PR defensive crouch, designed to be innocuous. Everyone else dunked at the company’s expense for not recognizing how tone-deaf the tweet came across.

As Vanity Fair writer Bess Levin put it, among the worst things about Twitter “is that corporate brands feel the need to tweet in a voice they think will appeal to the youths.”

Corporations are, understandably, desperate to tap into the elusive millennial demographic, and have assumed that by being on Twitter they will find the secret path to the next generation of customers. Informing this thinking is the further assumption that adopting a tone full of snark and hip is what’s needed to tap into the same gestalt that the likes of the Kardashians have mastered so completely.

In theory, this makes some sense. In practice, or course, it too easily goes off course for the very reason that, with few exceptions, snark and hip don’t go over well inside big bureaucratic corporations. (Don’t believe me? Try it with your boss some time. Let me know how it goes.)

What isn’t well appreciated by the companies that try to pull this off is the potential risk of reputational harm. This is something that should concern investors, especially when companies spend so much time and money building their brands and reputations. The errors we have seen, though usually just embarrassing, have the potential to backfire spectacularly.

A few companies have done social better than others: Nike Inc. has been among the best — the way it responded to Tiger Woods is a perfect example; it surely helps that the company stuck with him during his lean years when so many others dropped him. The Nike tweets about Serena Williams and retweets of Colin Kaepernick also look smart. The same can be said of some of the tweets Adidas AG sent during the 2014 World Cup. And fast-food giant Wendy’s Co. has a sharp Twitter presence, with no shortage of authentic snark, though whether that helps the company sell more hamburgers is hard to know. At the least, it keeps the company in front of a core demographic that seems to be less interested in competitors like McDonald’s Corp.

The reality is that Twitter and other social media are geared not toward companies, but toward real people.

Some companies get this, and follow one of two paths. They try to run things cautiously in-house, offering tweets that are as dull as a corporate news release — though as we have seen, that can go off the rails. Or they associate with so-called influencers, people with huge online followings who will promote a company’s products either for a fee or for in-kind payment. There are risks here also, but at least the distance makes it easy to sever ties with an influencer when some untoward tweet surfaces.

There is another option that might make sense for a giant bank like JPMorgan: let senior managers tweet. Former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein took up tweeting before retiring; Jeff Gundlach of Doubleline Capital occasionally tweets, as do Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates and Cliff Asness of AQR Capital Management. For the most part, their tweets tend to be informational or analytical, with little that looks like it came out of the marketing department. (Yes, Tesla co-founder Elon Musk tweets, and it’s such a potential minefield that the subject deserves a column — or several — on its own.)

So why not Jamie Dimon? Of course, he should avoid the poverty-shaming that was in the embarrassing deleted tweet. But he is a savvy business leader who certainly has something to say, whether about the economy, the company’s earnings after they’ve been released, or the company’s philanthropic activities. He doesn’t need to tweet 10 times a day; indeed, former Goldman chief Blankfein has only tweeted 50 times since joining the social network in 2011. But an occasional tweet from Dimon would be much more genuine and meaningful than having a junior employee attempt the impossible and try to make a banking giant seem cool. The Twitter handle @realJamieDimon is waiting.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He founded Ritholtz Wealth Management and was chief executive and director of equity research at FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He is the author of “Bailout Nation.”

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