When Social Media Gets Ugly


Oscar Wilde once observed, The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.

And he was right. Good publicity is great, but bad publicity is a PR opportunity. When things go pear-shaped in social media, they splat so hard and so fast it doesn’t seem possible to wash the stink off. With the right approach and strategies in place, however, you can turn a PR crisis around.

Let’s look at a recent example.

The Nestle Facebook Fiasco

Nestle had an ongoing issue with its reliance on palm oil in its confectionery products, the supply of which was being linked to the wholesale destruction of rainforests and dependent wildlife. As customers began voicing their concerns, a Greenpeace documentary made its rounds highlighting the extant of the environmental damage going on.

Overnight, shocked and angry consumers began joining Nestle’s Facebook page en masse to complain. The Nestle Facebook site found itself hosting ninety thousand new “fans”, all hostile. Some used altered Nestle product logos as their profile pics. But this wasn’t the problem.

The real trouble began when the overwhelmed PR rep in charge of the Nestle page threatened to delete posts by people with the defaced logo profile pics, on the basis that they were infringing Nestle’s trademark. When questioned on the validity and appropriateness of this, the rep responded with sarcasm.

Then, as the joke goes, the chocolate really hit the fan.

What went wrong here? A number of simple, and avoidable, errors.

For starters, Nestle was using its Facebook site as just another broadcast medium. Consequently, it was outsourced to a third party agency to manage. The PR rep handling the page was likely a junior staff responsible for dozens of other corporate social media accounts. When the crowd got ugly, the PR rep had no direct access to anyone of authority at Nestle. All the rep could do was point the detractors back to Nestle’s website to read Nestle’s views on the issue. In effect, that’s like talking to a pre-recorded message; it’s pointless, frustrating, and patronising.

And because Nestle didn’t seem to realise that its Facebook audience was strictly opt-in, it failed to capitalise on Facebook’s strengths as a community-building tool. It offered nothing to its few followers, most of whom friended it out of novelty value. Nestle therefore had no base of supporters and fans to counter the critics. When the mob came, the PR rep was on his own.

What could Nestle have done?

A strategy for dealing with offensive behaviour on its Facebook would have helped. Rather than focussing on protecting the brand, the PR should have been seen to defend its own community of Facebook followers first. Threaten to delete posters because they are disruptive, using offensive language, and drowning out genuine debate; not because they are mis-using your company’s logos.

Nestle missed an opportunity here to engage directly with their consumers. Someone at Nestle, preferably the CEO, needed to be monitoring events so they could step in and address any issues promptly. Even if their message was essentially the same as in their online statement, what was needed was the personal touch. The sense that Nestle really was taking the issue seriously, and genuinely cared about how their customers felt.

So how can Nestle turn this PR disaster into an opportunity? Since the Nestle name is currently linked to palm oil and deforestation, Nestle should talk up the connection instead of playing it down. Show the public that Nestle is aware there are problems, and that they are actively trying to minimise harm to the environment. Fund orang-utan habitats and rehabilitation centres. Source from ethical suppliers, and use their considerable buying power to encourage suppliers to behave responsibly. Show how small palm oil plantations actually benefit villages and lift people out of poverty.

It may take time, but by emphasising that the palm oil situation as it currently stands is a necessary evil, and plans are afoot to change this, Nestle can yet regain public confidence in their products. As long as they continue to engage with their consumers on a meaningful level by being respectful to them, and by being open and transparent with their actions.

Negative publicity is bad, but lack of action is far worse. Right when your brand is a hot trending topic is exactly when you need to jump in and change the direction of the conversation, and make turn bad PR into good PR.

Attribution: Slider Image by Jayel Aheram

About the Author: Nocifer

Nocifer (aka Cee Zedby) is a talented artist and video editor with a passion for social media. She has had her work featured nationally on Australian television and been an integral part of an award-winning television production house. She began blogging in 2001.

Connect with her on Twitter.
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Post Under Advice, Business, Social Media April 16, 2010

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