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A Twitter Brawl Offers a Lesson in Branding 101

By Joan Warner October 13, 2014

A bizarre Twitter altercation among high-profile personalities in the financial-advice community last week provides an object lesson in how not to use social media.

During a webinar, Brian Hamburger of compliance consultancy MarketCounsel said robo advisors have a trust hurdle to overcome with the public. Hardly a controversial point, right? When a PR rep for MarketCounsel tweeted the remark, it caught the eye of tech expert Bill Winterberg, who posted, “I’ll buy a product or gadget for sure [on the basis of online recommendations], but I won’t buy into a relationship.” Winterberg then wondered humorously whether Michael Kitces of Pinnacle Advisory Group would agree, and Kitces replied that robo advisors are selling a product, not a relationship.

There ensued a mild debate between Kitces and Hamburger, who suddenly used the #eyeroll hashtag and tweeted, “Do we need to go back to the distinction btwn brokers and advisors for you, @MichaelKitces?” His tone, understandably, offended Kitces. “Prepare for a storm off!” tweeted Winterberg. But nobody did storm off. Trying to smooth things over, the PR rep suggested “you boys” take up the issue at MarketCounsel’s annual conference in December. Whoops, bad move. Kitces noted he’d been asked to speak at the event, but “they declined to engage me.” Hamburger swung again: His event, he tweeted, is “stocked with keynotes and industry leaders coming to make change, not a buck.”

“It makes MarketCounsel look really bad,” Amy McIlwain, president of Financial Social Media, tells FA-IQ. Publicly insulting the popular Kitces wasn’t brilliant to begin with, but McIlwain says by switching from his personal Twitter handle to MarketCounsel’s early in the discussion, Hamburger “pulled the brand into the mud.” Firms should discourage employees from tweeting under the brand’s handle, McIlwain says, which should remain in the control of somebody who really knows social media. That person, she adds, isn’t necessarily the CEO.

McIlwain predicts all employees will have corporate Twitter accounts within three to five years, just as they have corporate e-mail accounts today — precisely because “a brand’s identity should be separate from the people within the brand,” she says. But even that might not have saved Hamburger, who could have used MarketCounsel’s handle unintentionally to slime Kitces. On a mobile device it’s easy to hit the wrong button and tweet from the wrong account by accident. For that reason, McIlwain suggests companies might want to limit employees’ access to social media accounts on their smart phones and tablets.

Once a conversation gets out of hand, what can a firm or individual do by way of damage control? McIlwain says it’s a good idea to go back and delete tweets or conversations that show your brand in a poor light. Yet even that isn’t much protection. As happened in this case, a provocative conversation is easily recorded with a screen shot, where it will live in eternity to be enjoyed by millions. “It’s like it happened on live TV,” McIlwain says.