Nestle take note! How to react when social media attacks!

26th Apr 2010

Nestle recently fell foul of social media campaign with its response only serving to worsen the situation. So how should your organisation respond if it is the target of a social media campaign?

Oscar Wilde may have said "To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual". But doing nothing is definitely not the best course of action in the face of bad PR. Nowhere is this more true than in the domain of social media, where doing nothing can be tantamount to brand suicide.      
Nestlé’s handling of an orchestrated social media campaign by Greenpeace led to it being widely criticised and escalated an issue that could have been defused, or at least contained, if it had been handled more effectively.
When Nestlé had the now infamous Greenpeace Kit Kat video removed from YouTube (on the grounds of copyright infringement), the result was not what the company had wanted. Rather than limit the damage done by the film, the removal provoked outrage from social media users who were quick to repost the video, and change their avatars to modified versions of the brand’s logo (which in turn provoked Nestlé’s wrath).
In a statement on its website, Greenpeace said: "Nestle today had Greenpeace’s video removed from YouTube in an apparent attempt to silence the environmental organisation’s efforts to expose the truth that some of its most popular brands use palm oil from destroyed rainforests and peatlands." Daniela Montalto, Greenpeace International forest campaigner, went on to say: "Nestle today admitted that they have been using palm oil from the destroyed rainforest in products such as KitKat, but having our video removed proves they are still trying to hide that fact."
Far from suppressing the issue, Nestle had made itself look guilty as charged, and guaranteed widespread coverage of the issue across social and mainstream media.
We used our specialised social media tracking software to monitor the reputation disaster as it developed on social media platforms. Searches for ‘Nestle’ and ‘Palm Oil’ together exploded (shown by this graph, below). 
Once it realised the issue wasn’t going to go away, the company eventually capitulated and posted an official response on its website, but it was simply too little, too late. The damage in reputation terms had been done. Even now, if you do a Google search for ‘Nestle Kit Kat’, a significant number of returned links refer to the Greenpeace story. It’s a salutary lesson in the long memory of the internet.
Why censorship isn’t the answer
In the face of a social media ‘attack’ like this one, censorship is rarely the answer. Ethics of censorship aside, it is virtually impossible in our open media environment to censor content on social media, on whatever grounds. It’s rather like trying to stop people talking in the pub. They’ll just go somewhere else to carry on the conversation.
Social media means companies are far more accountable than ever before. Issues are much harder to sweep under the carpet and to believe you can do so, as Nestle did, shows an extraordinary naivety about how social media works. Of course, the only real way to ensure that an issue doesn’t make it onto social media, is to prevent the issue in the first place. I imagine that Nestle is making a commercial decision: is this particular issue going to damage sales, and what is the long-term commercial impact of sourcing palm oil? In these days of social media, no brand can cover up an issue for long. If you’re going to use palm oil, you have to take the flack. If you don’t want the flack, don’t use the oil. And never think you can out-wit a social media-savvy organisation like Greenpeace by using lawyers.
The effect of doing nothing
Not responding to an issue that plays out on social media can have an incredibly negative impact on a company. Just ask United Airlines, which failed to compensate passenger Dave Carroll for his $3,500 guitar that was broken during a flight. Carroll tried to do the right thing by contacting United for compensation, but nine months of United doing nothing led to his ‘United Breaks Guitars’ song and YouTube video that may have cost the company at least part of its $180m dip in share price. A harsh lesson for ignoring a $3,500 compensation claim.
The United example wasn’t so much a social media disaster as a customer service disaster that played out over social media. This is an important difference. If United had responded effectively in the first place, the whole episode could have been avoided. Social media gives companies an unprecedented ability to listen in to customer issues and respond to them, quickly. To ignore a customer’s issue is to invite criticism – over any channel, including social media.
eircom, the Irish telecoms company, has embraced social media as a way to serve customers and listen to issues, and is actively inviting customers into a customer service community, eircom connect. Here, customers can ask questions of the company, report issues, discuss topics of interest and get help from the rest of the community, and find answers to common questions. The result is a culture of openness and trust between the company and its customers, and a place where the company can learn from its customers and improve service.
Honesty is the best policy on social media
These are still relatively early days of social media, and the truth is, most brands will make a mistake or two online. But how they respond to those mistakes is what defines whether an issue turns into a disaster. Vodafone had a fairly unpleasant couple of days when a computer was left unmanned with its Twitter account on the screen, and an employee thought it would be funny to post a couple of offensive tweets.
The offending tweets were removed by Vodafone, but only after photographs of them had been posted all over the internet. But the company came clean, apologised for what had happened in a very human way, explained the error, dealt with the employee, and moved on with no real harm done. This kind of fast and honest action could have avoided a much more serious backlash from customers.
Undoubtedly, social media is an efficient way to get mass consumer awareness for an issue, and one that organisations like Greenpeace will continue to use to great effect. It is empowering for customers: a way to express their feelings – positive or negative – about a company. In this new world, companies have no choice but to be more honest with their customers. If you make a difficult decision, explain it openly. Engage your most senior and experienced people with your critics as well as your fans (you might just learn something useful). Never censor criticism – it just doesn’t work in this environment. Putting your digital fingers in your ears isn’t going to help anybody.
And, of course, if you don’t want something you do to be discussed by customers, then don’t do it in the first place.

Joe Hughes is insight and research manager at Yomego.

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