Pink slime – the unappetizing name for meat filler made of finely ground beef scraps and ammonia hydroxide – was a staple of the US diet for years. The problem: Americans didn’t know it.
In March, that all changed. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver took to Twitter to tell his millions of followers that pink slime was nestling amid their children’s school lunches. The effect was instantaneous. Appalled Twitterati mobilized, lobbying the US Department of Agriculture. Pink slime was mentioned 16,481 times on social media in one day. Eight days after the surge began, the USDA announced that school districts would be able to opt out of serving the controversial additive.
A few months on, the aftershocks are still being felt: meat giant Tyson Foods announced that its beef sales had fallen 10.7% in Q2 2012. Beef Products Inc. shut three plants. AFA Foods filed for bankruptcy as beef orders plunged. “The unwanted controversy over lean, finely textured beef temporarily destroyed demand for ground beef, and beef in general, virtually overnight,” says James Lochner, Tyson’s Chief Operating Officer. The speed and scope of the backlash was vast, but it is not an isolated incident. Consumer companies without a foothold in social media monitoring are at risk of being overtaken by events. “Things don’t stay hidden for long,” warns Sanjaya Krishna, KPMG’s US Digital Risk Consulting Leader. “And when the light of day shines on them, it shines brightly.”
A recent KPMG Public Company Audit Committee Member Survey found that only 8% of respondents believed their company would be ready to respond adequately in the event of a crisis going viral through social networks. While tabloid scare stories are nothing new, social media invites and empowers consumers to take action. Recent campaigns have led to a sportswear clothing giant being forced to rethink its pricing policy, wiped 10% off the share price of a fast food chain and caused one of the world’s largest food processing companies to have its Facebook page overrun with negative comments.
“The impact of social media can be significant, both in terms of your market share and consumer perception,” says John Hair, KPMG’s US Lead for Risk and Compliance, Social Media. “And this stuff doesn’t go away. It stays online and can be reignited with staggering speed and reach. You can’t underplay the need for monitoring.”
“Social media monitoring data should be included in an overall enterprise risk management programme,” says Krishna. Simply including data that matches search phrases companies believe are important to them will not necessarily provide true insight. Businesses should be familiar with the influential sites and people whose commentary can trigger potential reputation issues, and the topic areas where they might arise.
“If you’re a confectionery manufacturer, you should be watching out not only for discussions related to candy, but for things like dental health and childhood obesity as well,” says Hair. “The next generation of social media monitoring tools, in fact, don’t even rely on user-defined phrases to focus their search. They analyze word patterns in postings to reveal which topics are gaining steam, positive and negative.”
Many consumer markets companies follow NGOs that have taken them to task, so they are ready to respond to breaking concerns. PepsiCo has set up a ‘Mission Control’ centre for its Gatorade brand, where consumer chatter is closely monitored by the marketing team.
Speed is paramount in a social media crisis – this is no time to hunker down. “It becomes a circular firing squad,” says Krishna. “Media outlets pick up on what bloggers say, even if it’s inaccurate. You need to monitor on a 24/7 basis and be prepared to respond quickly. Social media doesn’t respect the working day.”
It’s crucial to provide social media guidelines and training for employees, keep an eye on them online, and be aware of what suppliers, partners and even celebrity endorsers are saying.
Strategic integration of social media also helps. A 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 28% of businesses have a social media strategy (this rises to 37% among multinationals), and only 12% have an employee dedicated to social media.
If crisis strikes, it cannot be managed within most existing marketing and communications structures. “The standard PR tactics of ‘delay, deflect, defend’ will not work in these situations,” says Eileen Brown, author of Working The Crowd: Social Media Marketing for Business. “It’s not an authentic message. You need to reply in the same space.” Brown suggests identifying a ‘trusted advisor’ within the company who engages with consumers on social media every day. In a crisis, they can act as the first line of defence, where a company’s PR team might be viewed with suspicion.
Crucially, engaging – not ignoring – is the only way to reduce fallout. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in response to British government plans to limit social media in the wake of the 2011 London riots: “It is a mistake to look into the mirror and try and break the mirror… if you have a problem, use the internet to understand what that problem is.”