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Compliance and covfefe

Bill Coffin | June 4, 2017

On May 31, not long after midnight, President Trump fired off a tweet and then apparently went to bed. Nothing out of the ordinary there; he is known for sharing his thoughts on things in the wee hours. The thing was, this time, the tweet appeared to have been a half-thought, ending with gibberish:

Nobody knows what “covfefe” means, because it’s a nonsense word. It seems likely that the President meant to type “coverage,” had a fat-finger error, and hit send by mistake, most likely without realizing it.

The tweet stayed up for a few hours before it was finally removed, but the internet forgets nothing, and by the time people were arriving at work in the morning, comedians and the internet at large had a field day with the gaffe, making memes and yukking it up at the President’s expense. Seriously, if you want a good laugh, and don’t mind giggling at people in positions of power, just google “covfefe meme” and prepare to be amused.

But not everyone was laughing, and with good reason. Trump is our first true social media president, using Twitter to bypass the traditional layers of communication management between himself and the public. To his supporters, this is one of his strengths; a President who directly communicates with the world, often and unvarnished. But to others, Trump’s unconstrained social media use is an ongoing liability in more ways than one.

As one columnist noted, President Reagan’s infamous 1984 live-mic misstep—“My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I have signed legislation to outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."—would have fit within a single tweet. In Reagan’s case, he immediately admitted the error and squashed it. In Trump’s case, he sent a wrong message and then allowed it to sit for hours untended. Granted, it was a nonsense message, but it underscores the very real risk that anybody with serious responsibilities has when they use social media directly. There is always the chance of an error.

For executives, sometimes those errors can be costly, whether it’s a moment of gross reputational risk from something truly cringeworthy, a premature mention of financial data or business moves that can result in insider trading allegations, or a comment that can be used as evidence in legal proceedings at some point. There is a reason why it’s smart to have a robust social media compliance program that consists of at least two layers of approval and has ongoing, independent oversight that can notice mistakes when they are made and take swift corrective action. In Trump’s case, the big deal wasn’t so much that he made a mistaken tweet, but that it was left up for what amounts to an eternity both in the world of Presidential politics, as well as top-flight social media accounts.

Anybody who has used social media for business or personal communications knows that the primary strength of social media is its spontaneity, its direct access to the audience, and the ability to develop a unique voice that sounds and feels genuine. Brands such as Wendy’s and Mirriam-Webster have scored big social media wins with their snarky, direct voice that clearly is the work of some empowered social media users. But make no mistake: Those engagements are under scrutiny, and operate within a carefully designed set of internal guidelines, as they should be.

The eternal struggle with social media and compliance is that the more layers of oversight and approval you put on a social media account, the slower it becomes, the less responsive it can be, and the more forced it sounds. So clearly, there is a balance between complete freedom and stifling approvals. But it is every organization’s duty to find that balance and for the compliance officer to ensure that the social media rules and guidelines are adhered to strictly. Determine what are and are not appropriate topics for discussion. Communicate clearly what is and is not legally permissible to discuss. Understand what is and is not wise to mention in social media in terms of long-range legal liability.

Social media is so ubiquitous, and yet so new, it provides a situation where almost anybody can emerge and suddenly find a voice on their favorite platform. There are executives out there who may never have been part of their organization’s external communications before, but suddenly discover they have a knack for Twitter or LinkedIn or Instagram or Periscope. That’s an opportunity worth developing. But opportunity and risk are different sides of the same coin, and a social media compliance program is there to make sure you can express your voice to the world without making a covfefe moment out of it.