‘It’s scary not being able to contain your PR – we’re just not in control anymore…”
So said a company CEO to me last week in discussing the impact of the social media revolution.
Not too long ago, companies communicated with their customers and would-be customers via slick advertising and marketing campaigns and invited them to speak back to them by calling their “customer care” line or sending an e-mail. Their response would be a carefully crafted concoction of corporate platitudes along the lines of “we apologise for the inconvenience” and my personal favourite: “We’ve received no other complaints of this nature”.
But gone are the days when companies contain an issue by dealing with consumers individually.
Blogs, Facebook and Twitter have obliterated all hope of such containment – in a matter of hours it’s “out there” for all to read and add their comments. The power is now firmly in the hands of the people, which is a good thing in many ways, because, as I know only too well, there’s nothing like the public airing of an issue to motivate a company to do the right thing.
Sadly, for some, being seen to do the right thing is more important than doing the right thing.
But the general lack of rules and etiquette in this space – and the fact that you can post anonymously – has given rise to a considerable amount of abuse.
Richard Boorman, Vodacom’s acting chief officer of corporate affairs, spoke to Consumer Alert about this last week, sharing some of what he termed “just a few choice messages posted to us on Twitter”.
Predictably, some hard core swear words feature strongly, but there’s also the disturbing use of the word “rape”.
As in “I would rape all your families for the s***iest service ever, but thank you”, and (from another tweeter): “GSMed for 6 hours last night. I hope the CEO gets raped.”
And this, from a subscriber who was battling to send someone an SMS: “F*** you into another galaxy you sack of stinking abortion excuse for a network.”
Such “repulsive” threats are a daily occurrence, Boorman says.
“We understand people’s very personal 24/7 relationship with their cellphone and internet connectivity, and we fully understand that it’s hugely frustrating when things don’t go right,” he said.
“But the nature of the technology is that it has limitations and cannot meet the expectation of nothing-less-than-perfection all the time.
“It’s natural that when people get frustrated, they vent their anger on social media and we try not to take it personally. Having said that, there is a clear line between expressing frustration and outright abuse and threats. The people sitting in the social media team, just like our call centre agents, are human beings who react the same way as anyone else when faced with a barrage of abuse.”
The company is considering legal action to protect its staff, Boorman says. “It is sad when common sense, and common decency, suggests that a polite, if firm, approach is the best way to get a resolution.”
It’s easy to be nasty to someone when you can’t see their face, says Jessie Rudd, data analyst with PBT, a company specialising in “sentiment analysis” of social networks as a form of business intelligence.
“Human connection gets lost in the great big nothingness of the internet.” Punctuation and proper spelling, too, alas.
The last year has seen a massive rise in the uptake and infiltration of social networks, blogs, microblogs and forums by businesses, Judd says, with 55 percent of South African businesses using websites such as Twitter to engage and inform existing customers. “Sentiment analysis” locates and analyses digital content in real time across multiple channels – in other words, it tracks public sentiment about a particular company or brand.
“Companies need to build social media as part of their marketing campaigns, so that they’re proactive, rather than just reactive,” Rudd says. “They need to counterbalance what’s being put out there by consumers and thus manage their brand reputation.”
It’s something Woolworths is painfully aware of in the wake of the Frankies furore.
Naturally, corporates resent having to spend time and energy responding to what they regard as irresponsible, misleading social media comments about their business. This is especially true in the case of recalls.
A classic example was last year’s recall of a batch of banana-flavoured baby food made by Nestlé only for the French market, after a single piece of glass was found in one jar of the product, in France.
There’s little more sensational than the thought of glass in baby food and, as a result, messages began circulating on the internet, introducing the brand name Gerber (a US-based subsidiary of Nestlé, unconnected to the French recall) giving the impression that the recall was global.
Dr Corine van Erkom Schurink, PBT’s analytics team lead, throws out a fascinating statistic: of the world’s 6 billion people, 4.8 billion have a phone which gives them access to the internet, as opposed to 4.2 billion who have a toothbrush.
Apparently a lack of attention to personal hygiene is no barrier to having your say about anything or anyone on an international platform.
Of course, being on top of what your customers are saying about you on the net is one thing – having the skills and suss to respond appropriately is another.
Bongi Thabede of Durban ordered a birthday cake – for her son’s fifth birthday party at his school – from her local Spar a few months ago. She stipulated that it should be a “photo cake” and supplied a photo of the boy for this purpose.
No problem, she was told.
Naturally, she was expecting a cake decorated with an edible image of her son. What she got instead was a cake with the actual photo – inedible, naturally – plopped on top of the icing, but because she’d fetched it at the last minute, to rush it to the school, she had no choice but to pay up and take the strange-looking cake.
Furious, she later had a vent on her Facebook wall, which attracted a fair amount of “can’t believe it!” type comments from her friends. Among the comments was one from Spar, a company she’d “befriended” on Facebook some time earlier.
“They apologised and asked me to forward my story to their service department and supplied me with an e-mail address – which I did,” she said.
“The service department contacted me straight away and assured me that Gateway Spar would respond within seven days. Ten days went by and no one contacted me, so I posted on Spar’s wall, telling them how dissatisfied I was and the next day the store manager phoned me, listened to my story and apologised.”
Too little, too late, if you ask me.
The social media response was impressively fast, but the old-fashioned follow-up was lacking. The two need to work hand-in-hand.