Translators: is Twitter bad for your business?

April 4, 2012

I love Twitter. It brings me information, distraction and an opportunity to be in direct contact with a lot of colleagues. I follow lots of translators, and we regularly exchange useful information on everything and anything linked to translation. That is why, when I received a query for work from an unknown agency in the States, I sent the following tweet:


Followed by these two:


Indeed and surprisingly, negotiations were going well. I say “surprisingly”, because the original email immediately aroused my suspicions. You see, the name of the company rang a few alarm bells, for reasons that I couldn't put my finger on at that point. Besides, there are a lot of shady agencies out there whose business models seems based on not paying their translators, and when they’re based abroad, you stand next to no chance to ever receive payment for your work. So I had every reason to be extra careful, and to ask for feedback.

Then I received the following email:

We have read your message:

Céline Graciet‏@NTceline
Hello translators, has anyone heard of a US agency called ****? Got a query, but something doesn't feel quite right #xl8
This is quite disappointing, to tell you the truth. If you have any doubts -- ask us. If you go public with your suspicious thoughts ("something doesn't feel quite right"), try to substantiate them in some way. We are one of the most reputable US translation companies, and your message does not send us good vibes.

Every email I send has a link to my Twitter page at the bottom, so I wasn't surprised or embarrassed that they had seen my tweet. I replied:

I regularly use Twitter to openly exchange information about translation agencies with my colleagues. As you must know, there are a lot of disreputable outfits out there, and your name reminded me of one of them - I couldn't really ask you "Are you that agency that conned one of my colleagues a couple of months back?" :)

To me, this ability to help each other out is one of the best things about social media. I hope you saw that I did say that my fears were based on nothing and that my instincts are completely unreliable, and that I confirmed that my suspicions were wrong. So all my followers now know that I was just being a bit over-cautious and that you are completely legit.

I'll be happy to put a message on Twitter confirming that you are a professional company if you wish me to do so, and I'm very sorry if I upset you.

To which they replied:

Céline: 1. You could have asked us for professional references, and I would have provided you with plenty of those. 2. You did not upset me since we deal with lots of people/companies around the world and we take things professionally, not emotionally. 3. Your apology is accepted, yet our business relationship with you ends up at this point.

Aouch. I sent this final message:

I like using my network of respected colleagues for professional information, and I see nothing wrong with it. I never said a word against your company, I just asked for information because of very vague doubts, and I would have happily confirmed that they were unfounded. To me, this is all part of protecting my business against possible complications. I'm surprised you see it as a problem, but I respect that.

So I lost a potential client, which no freelancer wants. If I could turn the clock back, I would probably not put "Something doesn't feel quite right" in the tweet, as it can be taken as a veiled accusation, which it wasn't. But I think I would still ask my colleagues for their feedback. Just because some organisations are clearly a bit cagey about social media (which I think is betrayed by the "going public" comment), it doesn’t mean that I will stop making the most of what Twitter is best at, which is obtaining clear, transparent information from trusted sources to protect my business.

What about you, dear reader? Are you careful with your professional use of Twitter? Do you censor yourself, to a certain extent?

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I have to say, asking me not to contact my colleagues raises major red flags. There are still some companies that feel they can control the internet the way they have always controlled their employees. It just doesn't work that way and companies that try end up sounding quite peculiar and antiquated.

Posted by Jenn Mercer on April 4, 2012 3:56 PM

Hi Céline, thanks for sharing your experience. I'm sure it will be helpful to many of us.
I remembered reading your post on Twitter and I wasn't shocked or anything.
It is true though that I generally see this kind of questions on professional mailing lists, which clients cannot read, and not on Twitter.
Retrospectively, one can think that you could have just asked for info (without the comment) and for private replies, but what is done is done. Any of us could have done the exact same mistake. And I guess you learned a lesson from it, as we all just did (thanks for that!).

Posted by Nelia on April 4, 2012 4:05 PM

The fact that accepted your apology but still chose not to work with you is entirely their loss - not yours. I agree with Jenn. The fact that they got upset does raise a red flag.

Posted by Jill on April 4, 2012 4:23 PM

Cripes, I feel I played a part in that by stimulating further conversation, although on the other hand, it could be said that the final position was more positive than if the original tweet had been left hanging, unaswered. Which makes the outocme more surprising to me.

I think companies need to accept that as more interaction takes place on line, stuff that would previously have been said over the phone or over a coffee or round a water cooler is now more public (see also, to an extent, my latest blog post re: opening a bank account, which is due an update). Same applies to us relative to our customers, come to that. As long as there are no untruths or maliciousness, I see no issue.

Different people will react differently, of course. If that's how they feel, then given that you do blog and tweet a fair bit, perhaps they were never destined to be a long-term match anyway.

Posted by Charlie Bavington on April 4, 2012 4:48 PM

@Jenn: I think that their reaction does betray a certain uneasiness with social media.

@Nelia: I expected people to contact me via private messages. When you've used Twitter for a while, you realise this is how it works, and I never expected any feedback to be made public. But of course, clients aren't supposed to guess what goes on in my head.

@Jill: I'm not sure how to interpret their reaction. I do think it has a lot to do with being unfamiliar with social media. But of course, you could be right.

@Charlie: That is exactly how I see the use of social media: stick with facts, communicate openly and honestly and you should remain in the clear.

Posted by céline on April 4, 2012 5:16 PM

Hi Céline, thanks for posting this. I found it particularly interesting. I had a similar situation a month or so ago. After carrying out a translation test for a company around 3 or 4 months ago I never heard any more from them. I was relatively busy and to be honest I forgot to follow it up and didn't think any more about it. They then suddenly contacted me out of the blue, saying that they had approved my test and asking if I was still interested in working for them. I thought this sounded a little fishy so I posted a tweet asking what other translators thought, although I didn't mention the agency by name. About 30 minutes later I received an email saying that they had seen my tweet. Thankfully they took it relatively well and I explained, as you did, that I value the support of my colleagues and use Twitter as a way of exchanging information and experiences. They have since sent me work and I don't really feel as if I did anything wrong, but it perhaps has made me more aware of what I am posting, and that my messages are also visible to potential clients and not just to our community of translators, something which I of course realised previously but which often wasn't at the forefront of my mind when tweeting. As you mentioned, it is a shame that the company that you were dealing with jumped to conclusions so quickly, as I'm sure they would have been delighted if you had sparked off a conversation about what a good agency they are and how good they are to work for....

Posted by Laura Bennett on April 4, 2012 5:39 PM

My question is did your research on-line yield any information on the company's reputation, like how long they've been active on the market, any references from their business partners etc.? While I don't find your tweet "shocking" and completely agree Twitter is *the* exchange platform to share ideas, experiences etc. with fellow translators, I would guess the first impression is what counts. Therefore, I somewhat understand they felt like you made them seem suspicious - even if your following tweets said you'd been wrong.

Posted by claudia on April 4, 2012 5:43 PM

@Laura : How interesting! Different companies, different reactions. And yes, being mentioned on Twitter could well be a very positive thing. There are a few agencies out there that I would be delighted to promote in reply to a colleague's tweet asking for info.

@Claudia: I did a basic search on Google and on the proz Blue Board, which yielded nothing. I could have gone to the Payment Practices list, but I haven't used it for so many years that I couldn't remember whether I needed to be a member or where it was, so I turned to Twitter.

Posted by céline on April 4, 2012 5:51 PM

At issue here is reputation. And unfortunately, reputations bruised as easily as ripe fruit.

I think the company takes issue with your message because it insinuates disreputable behavior. I don't think they would have had a problem if your message ended with "Have you heard of X Company." You amended your statement, but corrections aren't always enough. The damage is done.

I would liken it to how lawyers will ask a witness a question, knowing full well that the opposing lawyer will raise an objection, and that the judge will sustain the objection. The lawyer doesn't care if the jury doesn't hear an answer. The jury simply needs to hear the question. The insinuation is sufficient.

I agree with Laura that this is about first impressions. And in a business context, there is so little room for error.

Jill will call me a Luddite, but these are powerful tools and should be wielded with care.

Posted by May on April 4, 2012 7:05 PM

As both a freelancer and a Sr. PM at a small agency, I understand both parties in this story. Luckily, at my primary job I do not have time to "spy" on translators and check their Facebook/Tweeter posts. :) However, I am certain that many companies do do that and as a freelancer I'd be extra careful "bashing" potential clients in public. These days, when employers (or rather HR) check "digital footprints" of prospective employees, it takes just one photo/post to make it or break it. I think in most cases a negative post about potential or current employer will...break it, which is exactly what happened in this case. I completely understand Celine and her suspicions, but I also see how the client may have found that tweet unprofessional and decided "not to hire".

Posted by Darya on April 5, 2012 1:11 AM

Céline, I was outraged when I read your post. Business relationships always work both ways, and you as a provider have all rights to check your client, don't you? I would feel fine if a translation company asked about me on Twitter: I have nothing to hide.

Posted by Marta (@mstelmaszak) on April 5, 2012 7:47 AM

@Marta: Well, lots of people disagree with you and me, including on the French side, where most commenters think I made a mistake and understand the agency's reaction. This has helped me see things from their point of view.

@May: The only thing I disagree with here is that although I agree that reputations bruise easily, could a single tweet asking a simple question, lost in the vast cyberspace, really do that much damage to an established and prosperous agency?

@Darya: I take exception with the term "bashing". I have never bashed anyone on Twitter or on my blog, and I'm all the more confident in saying this as I know that all my online interactions are out there for everyone to check - feel free to search through 9 years of archives on this blog and 5,727 tweets ;-)

All I can say is, it's been a great lesson, and reading people's reactions has shown me that the issue isn't as straightforward as I saw it, so thanks a lot everyone.

Posted by céline on April 5, 2012 8:26 AM

Hi Céline, thanks for following up on all those comments: it's very interesting. I do think your idea of asking your Twitter contacts was good. It's probably the "doesn't feel quite right" part which upset them. I can understand why, but I think they may have overreacted.

Posted by Nelia on April 5, 2012 10:26 AM

Céline, to answer your question, I suppose it depends. I don't use twitter so I am not familiar with all its functions. If I were to search for Company X, I would find your tweet asking for information. But would I necessarily see your 'correction' in the same search, or do I have to click through somehow?

Also, I do believe that what you say carries a certain amount of weight. You are a respected translator with a popular blog. A comment you make about anything language-related gets noticed.

I didn't realize the French comments were fenced off from the English comments! It is interesting to see the differences in interpretation. Makes you wonder if there is a cultural aspect to how the situation was interpreted.

I do understand the frustration though. Its never pleasant to be misunderstood.

Posted by May on April 5, 2012 6:37 PM

May, here's the thing: if you were to search for Company X, you wouldn't find my tweet. A cached version of it is still there and will be for a while, but to find it you have to put my name and the company's name in the search field, which is very unlikely to happen. So my tweet poses zero danger for the company, and this was true even when it was "live", as the company's name contains extremely common words. And this is Twitter, where actually, very little of what you say gets noticed, as people usually fleet in and out of it and follow lots of people. I think it's important to not overestimate its power.

Yes, the French and English sides are effectively two different blogs, and the difference in reaction is amazing. I'm getting sympathy on the English side, and quite a hammering on the French side, which leads me to agree that indeed, there must be a strong cultural element to business relationships.

Posted by céline on April 6, 2012 7:20 AM

Twitter is NOT email. It is a microblog: every Tweet is a publication. So everyone who uses it should really know something about libel. The question for the lawyers would be: "Is it defamatory to publish the statement: 'Got a query but something doesn't feel quite right,' alongside the agency's name?"

I don't know (not a lawyer), but obviously the agency weren't too happy. Publishing such intuitions without any evidence is surely unwise. Assessing the bona fides of random requests from the internet is obviously a vital part of the freelance translator's skillset, but if the usual searches fail to confirm or refute a bad vibe, then the most appropriate medium for further enquiries would be personal email, not Twitter.

Personally, one sniff of a bad vibe and I turn a job down without hesitation, but I wouldn't ordinarily blog or tweet about it. A lot more journalistic due diligence would be required, because disparaging a person "in the exercise of their business, trade or profession" is undoubtedly potentially libellous, and therefore dangerous territory.

If you do decide to blog about dodgy agencies, you'll be doing the world a favour, but you might like to review the law around defamation first.

(A pinch of salt: These comments are in part based on my now aging (1990) copy of McNae's Essential Law for Journalists, 11th Ed. The current 18th edition of McNae is evidently quite different—it has ballooned to 500 pages for one thing—though the widely criticised UK libel laws have not, sadly, been significantly reformed since 1990.)

Posted by Douglas Carnall on April 7, 2012 2:03 AM

Great post Celine! And I think that we all benefit by sharing stories about things we would have done differently, you are brave to write about this! Two of my personal guidelines are: 1) check every single agency on Payment Practices before working with them; best $20 per year you can invest in your business and 2) be very, very selective and paranoid about posting anything on the web that contains a client's name or identifying information. Some clients are very sensitive and protective of their work, and hey, that's their right because they pay our invoices. Sometimes I feel like posting something *positive* about a client or a project, but I feel like even then, some clients don't want their translator base to be publicly known, or don't want their end client work to be publicly known. I do agree that the agency in this case reacted strongly, but it's a good reminder for all of us.

Posted by Corinne McKay on April 10, 2012 5:43 PM

@Douglas: Yep, thanks. I'm nicely freaked out now.

@Corinne: 1) I so rarely work with agencies that I haven't needed to use Payment Practices for years. Next time, I won't be taking a shortcut.
2) YES. It's my policy as well. I had a temporary lapse, which won't happen again.

Posted by céline on April 10, 2012 5:59 PM

Hi Céline,

I work at Anecsys Translation in Australia and sourcing translators from around the world is common practise.

Equally as common as translators seeking and researching our organisation before accepting work. In fact, we encourage it.

I think the way the agency handled it was wrong (however as you self admitted, probably wasn't a good idea to write 'something doesn't feel quite right' if in the end they are reputable).

The power of twitter, facebook and other social media allows you to do your due diligence quicker and I think this one agency is probably freaked out by it and therefore over reacted.

Regards, Elvie

Posted by Anecsys Translation on April 22, 2012 12:41 AM

It was really very surprising to know that twitter can such badly effect your image. Thanks for the post.

Posted by David on March 18, 2014 5:14 PM

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