Centre for Internet & Society

Social media is a highly effective marketing tool for companies but its very ubiquity and the speed with which messaging goes viral has meant that it can hurt them badly as well, especially since platforms are not always moderated and can be hacked or misused.

The article by Ratna Bhushan and Varuni Khosla was published in the Times of India on November 11, 2013. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

It's not just bad language and racially or socially insensitive messages seemingly originating from official Twitter handles, some companies are guilty of poorly judged promotions resulting in consumer backlash.

On the eve of the country's largest broadcaster Star India rebranding its sport channels last week, the Star Sports Twitter handle posted abusive language. Star India said the account had had been hacked, but by then the tweet had gone viral.

Just before that, the Board of Control for Cricket in India Twitter handle had cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar's digital autograph along with bad language on the eve of his retirement from the sports.

Two days before Diwali, beverage and snacks maker PepsiCo ran a contest on Twitter asking contestants to tweet their version of the Ramayana. That caused outrage on social media, led by writer Chetan Bhagat.

PepsiCo quickly apologised and removed the promotion but not before it got flooded by tweets from those who were upset by the move. While Star and BCCI blamed hackers and PepsiCo's scored an own goal, social media experts say companies need to be more responsible.

"Our intent was to involve young Indians in one of India's most loved festivals. We took immediate action and withdrew the contest," the beverage maker's spokesperson said.

AStar Sports spokesperson also said the firm had apologised for the offensive tweet. "We have investigated the issue. A thirdparty vendor had abused his privileged access to the account. We are in the process of taking necessary action and will ensure that no such event recurs."

But ensuring third-party quality control may be easier said than done. "Many companies are unable to handle their social media operations because they usually outsource these to companies that don't get paid well enough (say Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 per month).

Hence the people handling the accounts could be anyone from an untrained 22-year-old fresh out of college or someone who has no skill set in the social media space," said Gaba.

Sometimes humour can turn offensive too. In the middle of last year, when Sachin Tendulkar made his eagerly awaited 100th international century, a tweet from insurance services firm Bajaj Allianz went: Congrats to Sachin for his long awaited 100th ton. Now don't delay your retirement planning. #RetireRich #JiyoBefikar.

That caused much offence to Tendulkar's fans. Or take the case of Fortis, which sought to promote breast feeding week last year with the hashtag AgarMaKaDudhPia-HaiTo. Predictably, this one too ran into trouble.

"Social media by definition, unlike broadcast media, cannot be controlled. Therefore, even if you take all conceivable precautions there can be unintended consequences. But India is culturally as complicated as a continent — therefore, it requires a very sophisticated understanding and nuance to pull off humour that is universally appealing and does not offend anyone," said Abraham. Last week, the seven-year-old Twitter's stock rose 73% on its debut, with a market value of $31 billion, making it one of the most successful IPOs of the year and beating even its own expectations. Globally, examples abound of companies or institutions making on Twitter bloopers.

"Companies shouldn't always come up with the excuse that their account was hacked... they need to be accountable. A senior member of the team should always oversee tweets before they're sent out," said Ankita Gaba, co-founder of socialsamosa.com, an Indian social media knowledge storehouse.

Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, a non-profit research organisation that works on policy issues relating to freedom of expression and privacy, said, "The BCCI disaster is because they have taken automation too far. Automation of social media interactions can be useful but without careful human oversight, it can very easily be gamed by rogue elements online."

A PepsiCo India spokesman said the firm's #Ramayana140 Twitter contest "unintentionally caused some concern to consumers".