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What to do when social media turns ugly.

Social media has changed brand communications. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Corinna Fenwick explains what to do when social media turns ugly.

In a relatively short period of time, social media has changed the way we communicate. As people. As brands. As much as I might like to discuss how social media has concentrated our love of cat-worshipping, this article instead focuses on how social media has changed brand communications for better or worse. And it gives our recommendations on what to do when it gets ugly.

New rules of consumer engagement.

It’s for good reason that social media is often a vital part of the ‘new rules’ of customer engagement strategy. It gives brands, both big and small, the ability to engage with consumers in real-time. It’s been said by many commentators, such as Brandignity, that social media opened the way for two-way communication between consumers and brands on a large scale.

Social media presents numerous benefits for brands, as detailed by Jayson DeMers on Forbes recently. This can include:

  • increased brand recognition
  • more loyal consumers
  • increased opportunities to convert
  • higher brand authority
  • richer customer experiences
  • improved customer insights
  • decreased marketing costs

Social media gives consumers a voice: the chance to be heard, to influence strategic decisions and the broader brand conversation.

Traditionally an organisation built its reputation through channels where the brand controlled the conversation. Now, its reputation can be made and undone en masse – whether the brand has its own presence on social media, or not. How could this new deal possibly go wrong? For all of the benefits social media brings, brands must accept they are losing an element of control to the consumer.

Gillette: A story of then and now…


Gillette is a brand with a long history in shaving. In fact, the brand recently celebrated the 110th anniversary of its first patent on a razor design.

No doubt, throughout the history of brand communications, they’ve ticked some people off – you can’t please everyone.

For example, these rather dubious print ads would’ve offended some at the time: slick men, begin early, Gillette Kahlo

The last one is a fake, but you get the point: whether it’s a misjudged advertisement or a nasty case of razor burn, dotted throughout the brand’s history are consumers with a bone to pick. And that includes women as a target audience (even in the 1940s), whether as the primary grocery buyer or consumer of the product.

In the time before social media, consumers took to one-to-one tools of communication to be heard: the phone, snail-mail, or a visit to the head office.

If direct communication with the brand failed to get the result they wanted, the disgruntled consumer had to go to huge effort to be heard outside of their immediate network.

Letters to the editor and petitions take effort and time. These aren’t spur-of-the-moment communications. If you’re going to those lengths, you’re probably really pissed off and/or have some extra time on your hands.

Now (and why social media amplification can be a frenemy).

Fast forward to today.

Ctrl + v and boom!

All it takes is a quick dash of the fingers across the keyboard and some nagging ire and that discontent is in the public domain. Your immediate frustrations are now across review sites, blogs and multiple social media channels for hundreds, or even thousands, to see. Including brand-managed social channels. Ouch.

On the flip-side, the fantastic advantage of social media for a brand’s communications is the ease in which it can open up the brand to new audiences.

Likes, retweets, pins, re-grams etc all work to broaden the reach of the original message and amplify it. Under Facebook’s current algorithm, a post is ranked highly in your news feed if it has a high number of ‘likes, shares and comments … from the world at large and from your friends in particular‘.

That’s pretty awesome when the conversation is going well.

But as Gillette learnt in 2014, there’s a downside when the conversation isn’t going a brand’s way.

To celebrate the anniversary of their first patent, Gillette posted an image of the original 1904 razor next to an image of the new, Flexball model on its Facebook page with the comment: ‘The razor has changed. Our drive to innovate sure won’t’.

The post attracted more than 1000 comments (10 times the number of comments that other posts on the page regularly attract), but most comments were negative.



Such a strong level of activity on the post meant that it was served to many more people without discrimination between the networks of those who liked the post and those who left negative comments.

Facebook doesn’t care what kind of attention a post is receiving, just that it’s popular.

How much attention should you give the naysayers?

The answer depends on a number of factors, such as:

  • who is posting and their intentions? – Are they internet trolls, consumers with a genuine complaint, or keyboard warriors?
  • how many complaints there are?
  • how critical is the consumer-group to the business?

But hold on a second, what is a troll or a keyboard warrior? And how do you distinguish them from real people calling out for customer service?

The answer won’t always be clear, so let’s start with some definitions.

The Lone Ranger: When consumers act alone (or alone-together).

To go back to Gillette, consumers took an opportunistic shot at the company, off the back of a post they didn’t gel with.

The Gillette Facebook page has more than two million fans and according to Forbes the brand is worth more than $19 billion. That’s a lot of razors being sold, despite the number of people who are quite vocal about what they say is a decline in the quality of the product.

Like the widely agreed definition of an internet troll, posters to Gillette’s Facebook page diverted discussions and made provocative comments to seek attention.

The other broader and more encapsulating definition of an internet troll from UrbanDictionary is more direct (and perhaps more accurate): “Being a prick on the internet because you can. Typically unleashing one or more cynical or sarcastic remarks on an innocent by-stander, because it’s the internet and, hey, you can.”

Unlike the lone troll, who actively seeks out and attacks brands for their own self-serving, attention-seeking motivations, there is good reason for brands to listen to feedback that is genuine, even when it’s unsolicited and negative. Call it free market research.

And maybe Gillette has been given a constructive takeaway: that consumers have reached the limit of what they need and will accept in a low-cost, low-involvement product like the razor. It may explain why product spoofs like this exist.

It’s impossible to please everyone and there will always be a market segment wanting more/less/something else.

But there is definite value in listening to consumer feedback and social media conversations for learnings that you can and should do something with. Talkwalker is a good tool for this.

The organised groups.

Then there is the negative brand sentiment on social media delivered by organised groups trying to drive change.

You could look at these groups as bold leaders, coordinating a singular consumer voice and using brand-managed social media channels to influence and drive change within the business. Or they may be fanatical minorities with a political or social axe to grind.

Depending on the circumstances, the group may be one, the other, or a mix of both. But whatever you think, it’s hard to deny the power of the people.

Let’s have a look at some of the successes organised pressure-groups have had:

Shooting down the game

As reported by the ABC, Grand Theft Auto was pulled off the shelves by Target and Kmart just before the key Christmas retail period in 2014.

The reason was a petition signed by more than 40,000 Australians. The petition was widely shared on social media and hotly debated on both company’s Facebook pages.

Anti-Halal campaigns

Anti-Halal campaigners conduct sustained strikes on the social media pages of Australian companies, pressuring them into dropping Halal certification on their products.

Behind the movement are sizeable groups, such as Boycott Halal with 61,000+ Facebook fans and Halal Choices with 12,000+ Facebook fans. Both are highly organised groups and, according to ABC’s 7.30 program, some members spend up to four hours a day coordinating efforts.

So when a brand comes into the spotlight, it’s not a few voices that can easily be ignored. It’s hundreds that demand to be heard. And it can get nasty.

It’s not surprising that co-ordinated action gets results for the pressure groups. Because of the campaign against the Fleurieu Milk & Yoghurt Company, the company cancelled its Halal certification. The cost to the business was significant. A $50,000 contract it held with Emirates Airlines hinged on the company being Halal-certified. But as a small South Australian business, Fleurieu decided walking away was the best decision it could make under the circumstances.

Environmental warriors

A 2010 campaign by Greenpeace, asserted that the palm oil used in Nestlé Kit Kats destroyed forests and killed orang-utans. This early pressure campaign, with social media as the centrepiece, was conducted over the course of months. But the message hit home fairly quickly, with Nestlé publicly stating it would phase out the use of palm oil produced using unsustainable farming practices.

At the time and in relation to the campaign, Richard Matthews of Green Conduct said in the IBS Centre for Management Research whitepaper on the campaign: “The world is changing and irresponsible businesses must now acknowledge that the revolutionary power of social media is a serious threat.”

It’s much harder to ignore a voice that is coordinated, but as with the Lone Ranger’s negative feedback, it’s up to the business to weigh it for value.

When you’re the target…

Social media has given consumers a voice and it’s easier than ever to influence the brand conversation and your reputation. While you may think some companies are more likely targets, all companies should be prepared to manage negative feedback on their social media channels.

At August, we’ve seen the result of organised group efforts first hand. Of the social media channels that we manage on behalf of clients, one sustained a particularly virulent barrage over the course of a few days in November 2014.

Waves upon waves of people, coordinated via the social media channels of pressure groups, hit the company’s Facebook page in an effort to compel the brand to change its business practices.

We’re not going to shy away from the fact – it was a tense few days. But we were prepared and had a clear plan in place to manage the negative feedback.

What to do when things get ugly.

There are lots of contradictory opinions on how to manage social when it gets ugly. These include never feed the trolls, publicly shame the assholes, and respond to them all and offer a solution.

Here is what we recommend.

1. Have a plan.

It doesn’t need to be a weighty tome, but you should have a clearly documented and agreed approach to social media monitoring and engagement that includes a plan for when things go awry

Include definitions and/or examples of the different kinds of feedback that you envisage your brand might receive. From the positive right through to where the situation calls for a ‘stop everything and call the police’ response. Document with responsibilities, agreed actions and escalation points.

Having a plan ensures that an appropriate, on brand response is delivered. Whether your brand voice leans to the cheeky, like TacoBell and Old Spice, or the customer-centric professionalism of JetBlue Airways, make it consistent.

Let’s not forget the quick and effective part of the equation in responding to feedback. It is important.

Forty-two percent of people who make a complaint on social media expect a response within 60 minutes.

They expect immediate recognition, even if a follow up response and solution comes later.

Make sure to read that last point again and let it sink it.

 2. Monitor activity.

Not many brands have huge teams of social media specialists monitoring and engaging with their social media communities around-the-clock.

However, even if it’s just one part of a single person’s role, it is unwise to take a ‘post and adios’ approach to social media.

Consistent engagement and nurturing of the community is where the value in social media is realised. It is a fabulous vehicle for two-way conversation. And if you’re not there to take part in it, well… a lot can happen on social media in the space of a couple of hours as this infographic shows.

Checking on your brand-managed channels at key points across the day, every day, is well advised.

3. Use personalised, but repeatable responses.

There will be comments, requests for information and feedback that come up pretty regularly on your social media channels.

Document these responses, so they can be referred to the next time. It’s significantly quicker to adapt and personalise an existing response than to start anew.

And if you’ve ever gone searching for a response that is more than a few days’ old in a social media channel, you’ll understand the old adage ‘searching for a needle in a haystack’ all too well.

If a crisis situation does occur, a blanket standard response or tailored inserts may need to be developed with input from legal, senior management and so on.

4. Be neutral. Stick to the plan.

Responding to complaints made through your social media channels in the same way you would if the complainant were in front of you, is a reasonable principle for guiding the management of negative comments. To a point.

There seems to be a segment of the community who lose all sense of common decency online and express levels of antagonism and vitriol that they would never spew forth in person. Whatever you might say if the same comment was made in person, keep it neutral online. On the internet, no one can hear you yelling ‘undo, undo’!

Be neutral. Even if you quickly delete a post or comment, you never know who will have seen it and kindly make sure it stays in the public domain for forever and a day.

One thing to keep in mind is that no one likes a bully. If a brand stays neutral, it’s fairly likely that the community will jump in and call out the assholes on your behalf. Just don’t thank them too publicly.

5. Where possible take it offline.

It might be tempting to freely use your heady powers to delete and block. But unless a post contains hate speech, threats, or super-foul language, the better approach is to leave it there and respond according to your organisation’s social media management plan.

For genuine complaints that are too complex for a quick resolution, see if you can get the consumer to take it offline. That will, hopefully, enable you to get the necessary information to assess the problem and provide a resolution, without giving more air-time to the grievance on your social channels.

Don’t be disheartened: a reminder why social media is awesome.

Some of the benefits of social media marketing as part of your consumer engagement strategy worth reiterating are: increased brand recognition, more loyal consumers, increased opportunities to convert, higher brand authority and decreased marketing costs. They present some pretty compelling reasons to consider social media as part of your marketing strategy.

But the key takeaway is this: have a plan. It’s essential to have a well-defined plan to manage your social media channels and engage with your customers.

A good plan sets out how to manage all kinds of feedback and navigate the waters if there is a storm. Consumers may influence the brand conversation on your social media channels, but they are still your asset.

Consumers are used to having a voice. If they can’t use brand-managed channels to express themselves, that conversation may happen elsewhere online and in channels that your brand doesn’t control. That might be your bigger risk.

Your brand stands to benefit from nurturing two-way conversations with consumers. Social media is a powerful tool that your brand can utilise to support these conversations.

What’s been your experience managing social media for brands?