How to avoid PR disaster on social media

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AFP

Images and tweets of many arrests of demonstrators went viral.

Pretoria - Until not so very long ago, companies could contain and manage consumer complaints within their call centres and customer care divisions. That began to change, locally, when hellopeter.com created a public platform for consumer gripes and social media took that to a whole new level.

Thanks to the retweet, one person’s bad experience with a brand can escalate in a matter of hours into a major PR disaster if not handled correctly by the company’s social media team.

The challenge, when it comes to corporate responses on Twitter, in particular, is to respond almost immediately, to strike a balance between Twitter’s informal tone and the need to appropriately address the consumer’s concern.

People who tweet expect companies to have a sense of humour, but to take their complaint seriously and provide empathetic responses.

Vida e caffe’s social media person got it spot on a couple of weeks ago when Denise Sherman tweeted that the Rosebank branch wouldn’t redeem her “free coffee” voucher. #brandfail, she said.

A short while later, when she’d had no response from Vida, she tweeted: “Clearly their social media guys are out having a cup of coffee. Wonder if they get vouchers for that.”

Shortly afterwards, Vida tweeted: “Ola! Back from our coffee break. Seriously, no excuses. Voucher is valid. DM (direct message) coming your way.”

Vodacom, which has a dedicated social media response department, got it wrong a few days ago.

The exchange went like this:

@Shamus-the: “Why does prepaid data in the year 2014 still have expiry dates?”

Later…

@Shamus_the: “Maybe Cell C or MTN or Telkom Mobile can answer me. Vodacom is ignoring me.”

(Tardy corporate responses are not tolerated on Twitter.)

@Vodacom: “Hi Shamus, think of it like a loaf bread. It gets old and stale, and nobody likes dry, hard bread, lol”

@Shamus_the: “Go on, explain.”

@Vodacom: “The bread is essentially a network of wheat flour protein & starch molecules. When starch molecules crystallise, staling happens.”

@IvoVegter: I can’t believe what Vodacom just told Shamus the Famous. Especially when their data expiry policy is illegal. How arrogant and condescending.”

And so it went.

The issue is a contentious one.

Section 63 of the Consumer Protection Act states that a pre-paid voucher, certificate or device, must be redeemable for up to three years.

In other words, you should not be forced to forfeit your spend within that time.

But that’s just what’s happening with pre-paid airtime and data vouchers. The networks are relying on a legal interpretation which is essentially that once the voucher is loaded, it is deemed to have been redeemed or “spent” and the value of the airtime or data can then expire within two to three months.

They argue that it’s the voucher itself – the physical means by which we buy pre-paid airtime or data – which has to be valid for three years, not the airtime or data itself. That’s a bit like trying to convince someone that unwrapping a bar of chocolate is the same thing as eating it.

When I raised the “stale bread” tweets with Vodacom’s executive head of corporate communications, Richard Boorman, he said the person who’d written them on behalf of the network was “utterly mortified”. “We work hard with our social media team to inject personality and interest into our daily interactions. @vodacom is meant to be helpful, fun and engaging,” he said.

“In this instance we got it wrong – the team should have known better than to be flippant on a difficult subject. We’ll learn from this and try even harder to get the balance right.”

A tweeted apology for the silly stale bread analogy would have helped.

I asked Boorman if the position of the network – and the industry at large – regarding that issue had shifted. No, he said, adding that the Section 63 interpretation was only part of the story.

“The customer is buying access to a specific amount of data over a specific period. We purchase data transmission capacity to cover this potential usage. If that data isn’t used, the capacity which has been paid for can’t be recovered.

“If we over-provide capacity then our costs rise and this makes it difficult to continue to bring down data prices. If we under-provide then there could be congestion issues. The role of data expiration is to help us get that balance right.”

Try explaining that in 140 characters.

Another company which waded in with a totally inappropriate Twitter response a few months ago was Pick n Pay.

Two men were exchanging tweets, bemoaning the fact that the cellphone networks charge subscribers extra to provide them with an itemised monthly bill.

One tweeted: “I’ve always wondered how itemised billing is a value added service. Imagine having @PicknPay charging extra for a till slip.”

At which @PicknPay responded with what I assume was an automated response: “Hi, we would like to address any concerns you may have. Kindly DM us your contact details please.”

So he responded: “Misunderstanding, no issues with PnP. I was using you as an example. But do feel free to send me a hamper or something.”

Clearly he was making light of it, rather than seriously suggesting that he be compensated.

But there was no response. At all.

Total fail. - Pretoria News

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