Social Media has redefined the way companies interact with consumers. As mentioned in my previous blog post The Internet: A Global Community, the growth of digital business and web based social networks, has resulted in the Corporate Social Responsibility movement. Companies can no longer avoid their responsibility to global issues. Consumers and NGOs are using social media to force companies into changing business practices.
Examples in the Past- The Bad, The Ugly
The Bad- BP and the Oil Spill
On April 20th 2010 an explosion of an oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in the death of 11 workers and spilled 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean. As news of the spill broke, people became irate. As the fury of consumers grew, BP continued to say very little in response. BP’s twitter presence was so lacking at the time that even their brief attempts to use the platform to address the issue resulted in failure.
BP’s lack of social media presence resulted in parody accounts such as @BPGlobalPR. Using the hashtag #BPCares, this parody site responded to public outcry. This hastag caught on and eventually was used by others to enforce the parody.
By June of 2010, the parody account @BPGlobalPR had 175,000 followers, and BPs actual account @BP_America had only 15,000. As expected, BP was displeased by these parodies and requested Twitter to remove the accounts. Unfortunately for BP, twitter has a policy that permits parady accounts. BP did “successfully” get the parody account to change their description. The author decided to change the description from “This page exists to get BP’s message and mission statement out into the twitterverse!” to “We are not associated with Beyond Petroleum, the company that has been destroying the Gulf of Mexico for 52 days.” (read more ) Twitter was not the only platform that they fell flat on. Facebook pages advocating the boycott of BP were getting more traction than BPs actual Facebook page. (read more)
When BP eventually did respond to the issue they spent over 50 Million on a television add. The slow reaction and media selection of BP’s response came off as a desperate attempt to “save face” not a genuine apology. Consumers took to social media to rebut this failed attempt. Famously, CEO Hayward attempted to apologize by saying, “I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”
Looking back at this social media mess, BP has made some changes to their CSR initiatives. Their social media presence on platforms such as twitter has increased dramatically and they have bulked up the sustainability section on their website. Providing information regarding their impact, positive and negative.
They are using their social media presence to keep consumers aware of what they are doing in terms of worker safety and sustainability. If their CSR initiative is genuinely core to their business is very much still in question. After an environmental and public relations disaster like this, it is difficult to change consumer opinion. They have learned their lesson the hard way about CSR consumer engagement on social media.
The Ugly- Nestle and Palm Oil
On March 17th 2010 an environmental group Greenpeace launched an attack on Nestle for their use of palm oil. This campaign was launched on Youtube and publicized the forest clearing that results from the production of palm oil. The video contained a graphic depiction of a Kit Kat turned into bloody orangutan finger. This was meant to symbolize the effects of palm oil production on ecosystems. This video received over half a million views and was sited on many other social media platforms by outraged consumers. (read more)
Nestlé’s immediate response was to demand its removal on the basis of copyright infringement. Many consumers were asked to remove their profile photos of the Kit Kat logo that had been transformed to read Killer. Instead of squelching consumer response as Nestle hoped, it ignited it. It was at this point that Nestle pivoted their approach to solving this issue.
Phase two of Nestlé’s response was to suspend their palm oil sourcing and meet with Greenpeace. Together the organizations helped to vet sourcing options for palm oil and selected the most sustainable. This situation also prompted Nestle to set up a “digital acceleration team” that is responsible for monitoring consumer sentiments on social media. This team uses all segments of the business to respond rapidly to consumer concerns, in order to avoid another catastrophe. (read more)
Nestlé’s Facebook and Twitter page that was once plastered with outraged customers, now regularly posts information regarding their initiatives. Their cover page even states their priority as “More Good in Food.” Nestle has also entered “round table” organizations and continues to work on ethically sourcing palm oil. They have a comprehensive outline of their palm oil policy on their CSR page.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
Companies have learned from the public failings of others. The key to avoiding these public relations nightmares is to have a strong offense, engage your consumers before it is too late. Companies that are doing this effectively include Unilever’s Sustainability Lab. The Sustainability Lab is a public forum of experts from government, business, and NGOs. These experts help solve global issues revolving around Unilever’s business. They also invite consumers to get involved in the problem solving, and publicize their results via social media with the hashtag #sustainableliving. This mindset is referred to as Collective Action, which is also featured on their social media platforms. Another company that is engaging with the social media and CSR effectively is Campbell’s soup. Dave Stangis, the VP CSR officer, is regularly available on twitter to publicize the companies CSR programs, and personally address customer concerns.
Companies have grown significantly in terms of CSR and social media in the past decade. There is a greater respect for public opinion that has resulted from these examples. Overall companies now understand that in order to operate in a global community, they need to understand and honor the power of consumer opinion on social media.