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Twitter 101 for Business: Horizon Realty Edition

This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

As reported by ChicagoNow’s Marian Wang, on Monday Horizon Realty Group sued unhappy tenant and Twitter user Amanda Bonnen for “maliciously and wrongfully publish[ing a] false and defamatory Tweet on Twitter, thereby allowing the Tweet to be distributed throughout the world.” Bonnen aimed her tweet at 20 followers, but Horizon’s lawsuit–and the questions Bonnen raised about the company’s management practices–made global news. Horizon might have avoided giving itself the same global PR black eye it feared from Bonnen’s tweet if only someone had read Twitter 101 for Business: A Special Guide…released by the microblogging platform just days before the tweet hit the fan.

As reported by Wang, Horizon’s complaint (PDF file) alleges Bonnen defamed the company by grousing about what she perceived to be a mold infestation in her unit after a ceiling leak. Bonnen tweeted to a potentially visiting friend:

“You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.” (11:08 AM May 12th)

Could Bonnen have privately Direct Messaged her friend? Sure. But she put the tweet in the public timeline, instead, and now Horizon’s seeking $50,000 in damages.

But a careless tweet isn’t the only potential harm done. Bonnen–who has now closed her Twitter account–only had 20 followers to begin with. Yet Horizon’s complaint has made international news (BCC News, Sydney Morning Herald anyone?)–so it’s worth asking who really caused the most damage here?

When queried earlier this week whether Horizon had contacted Bonnen prior to its lawsuit, company attorney Jeffrey Michael remarked, “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of organization.” That reticence to communicate might have been spurred on by an earlier lawsuit, this one filed by Bonnen, claiming Horizon refused to pay tenants interest on security deposits or provide warnings about the dangers of overloading porches.

Fearing Bonnen’s tweet could be “distributed around the world” (and ignoring that they probably accomplished that themselves), Horizon’s suit was also likely motivated by the growing recognition of personalized media’s influential nature, coupled with its potential to go viral for unexpected reasons.

Of course, viral can backfire on you, too. As the Trib’s Eric Zorn pointed out on Tuesday:

“Not to poke yet another stick at an obviously litigious party, but who was the genius at Horizon Group Management who thought it would be a good idea to file suit in Cook County complaining about a “false and defamatory Tweet on Twitter” tweeted by a woman with only 20 followers?

‘Hey, Boss, I’ve got an idea… let’s make sure tens of thousands of people hear about this lie!!!'”

Not to mention this comment beneath the same article:

“And this is the relevant Chicago law. Horizon doesn’t stand a chance in court & has ended up with millions in really bad publicity. Plus they say they’re a ‘sue first & ask questions later company’.

It is declared to be against public policy of the City of Chicago for a landlord to take retaliatory action against a tenant, except for violation of a rental agreement or violation of a law or ordinance. A landlord may not knowingly terminate a tenancy, increase rent, decrease services, bring or threaten to bring a lawsuit against a tenant for possession or refuse to renew a lease or tenancy because the tenant has in good faith:

(b) Complained of a building, housing, health or similar code violation or an illegal landlord practice to a community organization or the news media….”
(Posted by: Garry | Jul 28, 2009 1:59:16 PM)

So maybe Horizon didn’t get the concept behind Twitter–or potentially even the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance–so well. In response to the media whirlwind, Horizon later backed off from its sue-first-ask-questions-later statement, distributing a press release (PDF) attributed to Michael that said in part:

“I would…like to take this opportunity to apologize for tongue in cheek comments that were made previously regarding our approach to litigation. This statement is not in line with our philosophy towards property management and was taken out of context.”

The release went on to explain that Horizon only found out about Bonnen’s tweet while doing due diligence research in response to Bonnen’s prior lawsuit.

But as Wang notes, the PR damage had already been done (just take a look at the tenor of the tweets under the hashtag, #Horizon.) Using a sledgehammer to address what is essentially a customer issue on a platform most people take with a grain of salt, Horizon managed to highly amplify Bonnen’s individual opinion of the company onto the global stage.

Shortly before the whole mishigas began, Twitter published a detailed guide on how–and why–to use the service, aimed directly at the business sector. Entitled Twitter 101 for Business: A Special Guide, reading it might have helped Horizon avoid taking a bad situation and making it front-page worthy.

So while Horizon’s trying to aid Bonnen in understanding the legal consequences of not using the word “allegedly” when referring to third parties, here are annotated selections from Twitter 101 for Business–with a careful eye towards advice that might have aided Horizon in understanding the potential consequences of its own actions in the court of public opinion…

What Is Twitter?

  • “As a business, you can use [Twitter] to quickly share information with people interested in your company, gather real-time market intelligence and feedback, and build relationships with customers, partners and other people who care about your company.”
    –Horizon used Twitter to accomplish all this, but indirectly and without really meaning to do so. As a result, the relationships developed weren’t necessarily beneficial ones, as one after another Twitter user reacted negatively to Horizon’s actions.
  • “As an individual user, you can use Twitter to tell a company (or anyone else) that you’ve had a great–or disappointing–experience with their business.”
    –Horizon completely missed the fact that it’s accepted practice on Twitter to liaise with companies with which you’re associated and share with them both praise and frustration at their products and services. Firing off a lawsuit based on they type of tweet many other companies might view as innocuous immediately drew attention to Horizon–the wrong kind.
  • “Twitter connects you to your customers right now, in a way that was never before possible…The conversational nature of the medium lets you build relationships with customers, partners and other people important to your business…In combination, those factors can make Twitter a critical piece of your company’s bigger digital footprint.”
    –Because Horizon’s actions were so far beyond the norm of the Twitter community, the digital footprint of attention they generated was enormous. But where Horizon could have been making a good impression before thousands of potential customers or business partners, the abnormal (for the social-media sphere) nature of its actions instead engendered a groundswell of negativity that did little to enhance the company’s reputation.

  • “Twitter almost always delivers ‘Aha!’ moments for people, but it can take some getting used to before you have your moment of enlightenment.”
    –That moment likely came for Horizon shortly before recanting its earlier, tongue-in-cheek remark. (I envision a company representative sitting down at a computer, downloading a few thousand negative emails, and mouthing the words, “Oh, shit.”)
  • “Go deeper…”
    –By not considering the possibility that its own lawsuit might make the same rounds on Twitter that it feared Bonnen’s original tweet might, that’s just what Horizon did–unnecessarily deep-six its its public image. It’s worth remembering that a lone tweet doesn’t prove Horizon’s a bad company in any way at all. But perception tends to be the better part of reality, and Horizon could have given more consideration to the way the social-media community might perceive its actions.

Getting Started

  • “…it’s important to understand that on Twitter, people choose to view your updates by searching for specific keywords or by following your account. This recipient-controlled model means that if you are compelling to people on Twitter, they’ll choose to view your updates through search or follow your account.”
    –This is key. Bonnen had 20 followers. That likely means she (alone or in combination) didn’t use the service much, wrote uninteresting posts, or didn’t enagage with other users beyond her immediate followers. Which taken together means very few people were actually or potentially going to read any of Bonnen’s tweets. At all. Ever. So if Horizon was really afraid Bonnen’s lone tweet was going to spell coporate ruin, then they probably didn’t understand Twitter as well as they could have.

  • “To get a sense of what Twitter can do for your business, spend a little time listening in on the conversations happening right now (you can use Twitter search whether or not you have an account). Listening will help you quickly learn what people are saying about your company, and it will also give you a feel for the flow of conversations on Twitter. In addition, it can give you insight into how other companies handle Twitter exchanges.”
    –Besides understanding how tweets bubble up, Horizon could also have made an attempt to understand how (the many) companies represented on Twitter deal with unhappy customers, clients, and users. The fact that none of them had ever fired off a lawsuit based on a negative tweet should have been a signal that any such lawsuit would garner intense media attention. Perhaps Horizon intended to become social media’s first libel “test case”, but its same-day verbal backtracking seems to suggest otherwise.

Learn the Lingo

  • Tweet–One thing Horizon could have done, instead: create its own Twitter account, and egage with Bonnen in the public timeline, both to assess her concerns and defuse the weight of her initial tweet.
  • Direct Message–Horizon could also have contacted Bonnen privately via DM (direct message) to let her know they thought she was being unfair and ask her to remove the tweet.
  • Retweet–What doesn’t appear to have happened to Bonnen’s initial tweet before news of Horizon’s lawsuit came out. The lack of Twitter users re-sending her tweet about Horizon to their own followers is indirect evidence that Bonnen’s tweet wasn’t trending on its own.

Best Practices

  • “Listen regularly for comments about your company, brand and products–and be prepared to address concerns, offer customer service or thank people for praise…Keep an eye on your @mentions.
    –We know Horizon followed at least one best practice, which is to their credit–even if the way the company chose to “address concerns” might not be.
  • “Take people behind the scenes of your company.”
    –Oddly enough, this is exactly what happened with Horizon, but not in a good way. The gulf between Horizon’s response and heretofore accepted social-media norms has been interpreted by many who wrote about the lawsuit as evidence that Horizon got itself in over its head by acting before considering consequences. Whether or not that’s true, that’s not the kind of decision-making process any business wants its customers–or investors–to think is used to run the company.

Case Studies

  • Pepsi
    “Although Pepsi finds that nearly all of the conversation on Twitter is very positive, people do sometimes complain via tweets. The brand managers try to address negative comments very quickly. ‘We try to gauge the overall tone and type of problem,’ says Josh Karpf, manager of social and emerging media for PepsiCo. If somebody doesn’t like a piece of advertising, the company accepts that. But if a person has had a problem with a product or is attacking the company in some way, Pepsi has a process in place to resolve the issue directly. The company responds once in public, and if the person stays negative, they switch to DM and then to email or phone if needed. Internally, a cross-functional team can help solve problems.”
    –Bingo! Shazam! No more callers, we have a winner! Pepsi’s considered, staged, resolution-based customer complaint process on Twitter is perhaps the best example anyone could set for Horizon. The key is a process that’s communicative, not punitive. If anything raised the ire of the social-media world about Horizon’s actions towards Bonnen, it was most likely the idea that the company sought to punish her rather than address her concerns within the bounds of the same community norms that far, far larger corporations find perfectly acceptable.
  • Teusner Wine
    “Because he can engage with customers in an immediate way, [Dave] Brookes also finds Twitter useful for learning what people like. ‘It’s real-time responses with people, and you’re getting authenticity in the feedback from consumers.'”
    –Translation: If a customer says they’re unhappy, there’s probably a good reason for it–and that reason may have to do with the adequacy of your company’s own responsiveness to customer concerns. Or more bluntly: don’t shoot the messenger.
  • Tasti D Lite
    “Twitter provides a window into the real-time thoughts of customers – leverage what you learn to improve your marketing.”
    –Hello? Is this thing on?

Other Resources

  • Mashable–Not to mention Digg. Oy. Horizon, I wouldn’t even look if I were you. I suggest curling up with something by Pema Chödrön and a nice cup of tea, instead.

The Washington Post goes as far as saying Horizon has “incinerated” its reputation by suing Bonnen for a Twitter tweet. That’s overstating things. What’s more certain, if Horizon doesn’t drop the lawsuit, they’ll continue to be a focus of interntional media attention for a long time to come. At some point you have to ask whether going after one pesky tenant is worth your small, local company potentially becoming a huge, international laughingstock.

If the company’s press release is any indicator of things to come, you might well think Horizon still doesn’t fully ken the import of the self-inflicted harm they may be doing to themselves:

We are proud of the fact that Horizon Realty Group is recognized as one of Chicago’s premiere apartment leasing and management companies because we understand the importance of quality customer service and a well-maintained living environment. We look forward to presenting our side of this matter before the court and putting the unfounded accusations of a single, former tenant behind us so we can focus on continuing to serve our more than 1,500 existing tenants throughout the Chicagoland area.”

I can’t tell whether that quote reminds me of a head in the sand or somewhere else.

Why, the whole unfortunate story makes this lifelong renter wonder whether it might be time to leave landlords behind for good and finally buy a place of my own. (Hands up who thinks Bonnen’s thinking that right now, too?) It won’t happen anytime soon, though. That sound you hear in the distance is my credit score laughing at me.

Now I know how Horizon feels.

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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