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How should brands respond when being cyber-bullied?

Many brands are struggling with the burden of social networking and the power it has put in the hands of the consumer. In days of old, you phoned a customer complaint line, and they told you that they were recording the call for quality assurance. Your complaint usually fell on deaf ears, because brands weren’t that worried about a private phone call between the company and an individual.

Now imagine broadcasting that recorded message to a possible listenership of 500-million users on Facebook. Imagine thousands of people agreeing with your complaint and voicing their own on this public platform for everyone to see.

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It is a PR nightmare and it sees brands getting a crash course in crisis management.

Often these complaints and concerns are valid and people use social networking platforms for activism. The outcry over the BP oilspill, for example.

But what if your brand becomes the target of cyber-bullying? What if the outcry is unwarranted, factually ignorant, emotive and malicious?

Cyber-bullying

Wikipedia defines cyber-bullying as any action that “involves the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others”.

Unfortunately, the power of social networking means that your brand could be a target.

Fritolay, a division of Pepsico, recently ran into a cyber-bullying situation similar to the Woolworth’s Christian magazine debacle. The company produces the popular potato crisps called “Sun Chips”. A few months ago, Fritolay came up with the brilliant environmentally-friendly idea to make the bags for Sun Chips biodegradable.

Fritolay had effectively created “the world’s first 100 percent biodegradable chip packet” and I’m sure they were very proud of this innovation. They were expecting accolades and praise from their customers for being such a responsible corporate citizen.

Instead, they ran into a social networking lynch-mob.

Within weeks of the launch of the new packets, people were so incensed about the sound of the new packets – a result of the renewable plant-based material, or PLA, of which the bags are made – that they rallied on Facebook:

• SORRY BUT I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUN CHIPS BAG – 50,000 people “Like” this.
• I wanted sunchips, but my roommate was sleeping… – 720 people “Like” this.

This sudden flurry of negative PR had Sun Chips in a tizz. Aside from the fact that that they suffered an 11% drop in sales in the US, Fritolay then recalled the packaging on almost all the products except for the “Original” flavour.

Of course, this kneejerk reaction to the cyber-bullying has also had a reverse effect. Now the “Greenies” are up in arms at the decision: TheFacebook group called Bring the Noise! Keep the Sun Chips Compostable Bags is “Liked” by 1,812 people, while Keep the Biodegradable Sunchips bag has 591 fans.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Apparently Fritolay are now working on a quieter version of the packaging.

“Fools talk, cowards are silent, wise men listen.”

Let the fools talk! If you’re a brand using social networking, then you need to avoid kneejerk reactions to cyber-bullying. Yes, these platforms are fantastic for garnering public opinion about your product and using Facebook and Twitter to handle customer service queries, but don’t succumb to the mob mentality.

Fritolay US made a rash decision. Admittedly, they did suffer in sales too and this is probably the major factor in their decision to recall the packaging, but let’s look at how FritoLay Canada reacted to the same situation.

Fritolay Canada has balls. The company decided to keep the bags and offer free earplugs to drown out the noise. FritoLay Canada sat back and listened to the uproar, but instead of immediately bowing under the social media storm, it went to ground and brainstormed.

Utilising its in-house intellectual capital, it came up with a brilliant way to stay environmentally-friendly, leverage the massive PR splash of the outcry and gain kudos for a tongue-in-cheek, fun campaign.

The Fritolay Canada Facebook Page asks fans to try out the bag and “make some noise about helping the environment”. The page only has compliments on it and even some marketing suggestions. Gord Murray McDougall asks: “Why don’t you market an official Sun Chips bowl (made with recycled materials, of course), so people who don’t like the sound of the bag can use the trademarked bowl?” Brilliant!

Do not suffer fools gladly

Listen to your customers, but don’t freak out if there’s a little uproar on Facebook about a calculated business decision on your part. Yes, social media has empowered customers to voice their concerns, but since when did you hire them to decide on your strategic business decisions?

Listen and absorb, then mull it over, then decide internally. Don’t have a kneejerk reaction. Besides, the average attention span of a social media fracas is about a week, then they’ll move on to some other stupid popular campaign, while feeding their pigs in Farmville and trying to win a free iPad by becoming a tester.

The average interwebz user is …. how shall I put it….not the brightest bulb on the tree. As they say, an internet petition isn’t worth the paper it is written on and most internet users, the vast majority in fact, do not have the strength of conviction to stand by their threats further than the effort it takes to engage caps lock.

Don’t let your brand be cyber-bullied by a vocal minority who suddenly start dictating your strategic business decisions.

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