On Friday the New York Times carried a 2858-word-long article saying that the General Electric corporation is very good at dodging taxes.
The Times reported that in 2010 GE had $5.1 billion in U.S. profits — and not only paid no taxes — but claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion. Pretty electrifying performance, what? That’s accounting “imagination at work.”
The Times story goes into enormous detail about GE’s tax strategy, lobbying efforts and more. While GE stockholders might appreciate the company’s bright ideas about how to keep Uncle Sam’s hands off their cash — most taxpayers probably take a dimmer view.
The Un-Generous Electric company was reportedly unhappy with the accuracy of the Times report and their PR department wanted to push back. How to do that? Apparently a light bulb went off somewhere and they decided to do so via Twitter.
Business Insider reports that @GEPublicAffairs put out a series of Tweets blasting the NYT for their “misleading” report. But when Business Insider responded with some questions seeking more information, GE’s Twitter folks responded with another tweet telling BI to “stop repeating” the Times’ “misleading attack.” The NYT says it stands by its story — and notes that GE has not asked for any correction.
As for other media trying to follow up on the story, tweets were tossed around like insults at a WWE wrestling match. GE succeeded in generating some heat but no light.
It is hard to craft a tweet on intricate subjects without coming away looking like you have left yourself a loophole or have engaged in spin.
To make matters worse, after the initial volley of tweet and counter tweet, GE’s spokespeople went silent for a while. In an update to their earlier post, Business Insider says that GE’s folks now say they are “working on a response” to their earlier questions.
The lesson here is that when dealing with complex issues — like 2800-word NYT articles about complicated tax issues — you are not going to be able to state (let alone win) your case 140 characters at a time.
GE needed to quickly and fully respond to the allegations. The right format for that would be a detailed written statement and making a knowledgeable spokesman available to answer all questions.
Twitter is very good for summarizing your position or pointing interested people toward a more detailed response — but fighting back tweet-for-tweet on an issue like this is like trying to write the operating manual for your nuclear power plant on a matchbook cover.