I’ve had an interesting back and forth debate with Sanjay Mehta (@sm63) on twitter on what lessons we ought to learn from the recent Nestle social media debacle. For those who don’t know the story behind the Nestle debacle, here is a brief snapshot of what I have understood from various online accounts:
Greenpeace bought out a video that showed the effect that palm oil cultivation (a key ingredient in the chocolates that Nestle makes) has on the ecology and how it’s leading to a shrinking habitat for the orangutan. The video, which was up on YouTube, showed the KitKat logo (a Nestle product), with words “Killer” instead of KitKat. Nestle, citing trademark violations, had the video pulled down from YouTube. Greenpeace then turned to its army of twitter followers to help in hosting the video elsewhere on the Internet and the video went viral. All this also attracted attention to Nestle’s Facebook Fan Page, where Greenpeace activists turned “fans” were already launching an assault on the brand. A number of people started posting comments using the morphed logo with the words “Killer” as their avatar. This led to Nestle putting out a request to people to stop “violating” their trademark. A couple of high handed comments from the Nestle people managing the fan page ensured that this snowballed into an all out assault. People joined up as “fans” just to put in their 10 cents on how much they hated Nestle and how Nestle shouldn’t have asserted their right to their trademark. In the end it seems that Nestle has one big great PR screw-up in the hands.
A number of blog posts were of the opinion that had Nestle followed the rules of engaging with “fans” or what could be called “Social Media 101”, this whole fiasco could have been prevented or at least mitigated to some extent. Some of them even put forward ways in which Nestle could have re-worded some of its comments so as to make them more palatable.
I have two basic problems with this whole take on the issue:
- It’s easy to give arm-chair advice after an event has happened.
- This isn’t some consumer complaining, that you can “handle” through the normal manner.
I’ll elaborate a bit more on my second grouse. All the various suggestions put forward are brilliant and are absolutely the right thing to do if you are dealing with genuine “fans” of your brand or even genuine “critics” of your brand. Note the emphasis is on genuine here. By genuine, I mean to say that these are “real” people, “real” consumers, you get the drift. In my opinion, the playbook goes out of the window when you are confronted with a rogue social army with its own agenda for your brand, hell bent on pulling you down no matter what you do. In this case, reason does not work, especially when the issue seems to be fuelled more by FUD than any real shortcoming of the brand.
I’d liken handling such social media crises to being a hostage negotiator. Consider a situation where say a bank (your brand) has been taken over and you are called in to negotiate the release of hostages. In the first case imagine that the hostage takers are just a bunch of irate customers who decided that it was a good way to show their displeasure by turning up at the bank with a loaded gun. Maybe they have just had a really crappy experience with your bank’s products or maybe they just had a bad day, either way a skillful negotiator can win them over by engaging with them. A really skillful one can even get them to “turn themselves in” without any damage to the bank. This is what I’d liken handling normal brand criticism to.
On the other hand, now imagine the same bank taken over by a professional crew or a bunch of terrorists, hell bent on their own agenda. In the case of terrorists they might not even want to “take” any hostages or leave the bank undamaged. Are they likely to listen to reason? Is “negotiating” with them even useful or just plain counter-productive? Shouldn’t you just call in SWAT to end this quickly and painlessly?
Well, when you are specifically targeted by a special interest group with an agenda that they want to force on your brand, I think it ought to feel precisely like the case above. As to what the SWAT option should be, I really don’t have any answers. It’s probably still early days to craft a credible strategy to deal with these kinds of social media attacks, but I believe that as social media goes more mainstream the frequency of such attacks on brands will only increase and brands had better be prepared then.
PS: Just to clarify the intention of this post is not to support Nestle or to show Greenpeace in a poor light.