Last month, Caroline Williams, chief executive of Bodyform, the female hygiene products company, took to the web to deal with a particularly vocal consumer called Richard Neill.
Sitting at a desk and talking straight to camera, Ms Williams offered an apology and went on to admit that all of Bodyform’s advertising and marketing campaigns, featuring skydiving, rollerblading and horse riding women enjoying life while dealing with their menstrual cycles was a sham. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but there is no such thing as a happy period,” she says. The Bodyform ad has been viewed more than 3m times on YouTube.
The video was posted in response to a Facebook post by Mr Neill bemoaning that companies such as Bodyform “lied to him all these years . . . There was no joy, no extreme sports, no blue water spilling over wings and no rocking soundtrack.” More than 100,000 people “liked” the post and it too went viral.
But Bodyform’s ad was a spoof; an actress was performing the role of Ms Williams and the tongue-in-cheek tone was an attempt to respond in a creative way to a viral social media campaign that had the potential to damage a brand. Bodyform’s tactics worked, generating positive publicity for the brand and headlines such as: “This may be the best response ever to a Facebook rant – period”.
But for many other companies, responding to the public on social media can be a minefield.
Jim Coleman, a managing partner at We Are Social, a social media agency, points to McDonald’s #McDStories Twitter campaign as a less successful example of a big company trying to engage with social media. The fast-food chain’s attempt to promote its hashtags on Twitter with paid-for tweets was called “#McFail” when people began adding less than savoury stories to the #McDStories stream. The company was eventually forced to pull the promoted hashtag.
Rick Wion, social media director for McDonald’s USA, says the company’s plan was aimed at its existing patrons. The difficulty was that so many of those who responded negatively were not. “A lot of people were not our customers. We were focusing on our customers,” he says.
That could be part of the problem. Mr Coleman says the strategy should have foreseen the possibility of non-McDonald’s lovers joining in and arranged a better response. “It’s just not thought through,” he says. “It’s like saying, ‘come and have a go’.”
What then can companies do to both engage well?
John Bell, managing director of Social@Ogilvy, the division that looks after social media strategy for the media agency’s brands, advises clients to set up a war room. This allows the company to get together “experienced people who’ve seen frontline activity . . . public affairs, legal, product people, management, crisis experts.”
Having a war room involving different departments helps prevent them from doing anything individually that could create problems for other parts of the business and allows a company to run through various scenarios.
Such planning might have helped Qantas in 2011. The Australian airline launched a Twitter campaign asking people to describe their “dream luxury in-flight experience” just after its fleet had been grounded and negotiations with unions had broken down.
The campaign backfired and prompted unimpressed responses such as “Qantas luxury means sipping champagne on your corporate jet while grounding the entire airline, country, customers & staff”.
Crisis simulators such as Firebell, created by Weber Shandwick, the public relations company, and Social Simulator, for example, can help employees run through potential responses and develop game plans. These replicate real-life scenarios – anything from a terrorist attack to a leaked document – using role play. Participants use the software platforms to respond on different social media and work out their real-life strategy.
Once a plan is in place, companies have to monitor social media constantly to make sure they can see bad publicity coming.
Nicola Green, director of communications at O2, the UK mobile phone company, says the technologies have become the best way of “walking the store . . . We find out about issues via Twitter before we find out from the organisation.”
O2 has been praised for its Twitter account, which posts light-hearted responses to serious issues even when tweets are particularly rude. During a recent service outage, it responded to a customer who tweeted “Had to travel to Italy to get signal – desperate times!!!” with “You can come back now. We’re back in business.”
However, Ms Green emphasises the importance of knowing when to dip in and out of conversations. “Don’t feel compelled to engage with trolling,” she says, referring to the practice of posting inflammatory or off-topicmessages on social media sites. “People who are not reasonable are not credible. We make a call on whether we can help them.”
With the ability to share something on a blog a mere click away, companies have to be nimble in their firefighting. Andy Gilman, president of CommCore Consulting Group, likens a company’s response to the “golden hour”, the period in which medical treatment is most likely to stabilise a person after serious injury. “You quickly stabilise the patient but then you have time usually to transport them to a hospital to do a fuller diagnosis and make a treatment decision. There’s a need for rapid response but you’re not making all your decisions in that first hour.”
While most big companies understand that the traditional statement or press release no longer cuts it, managing a quick response can be difficult where multiple managers need to sign off on an approach.
James Sadri works on social media campaigns for Greenpeace, the activist group known for using social media effectively to target companies, and thinks company structures can hamper efforts. “I had a mole in a company we were campaigning against tell me what was happening,” he says. “She was running social media operations and she was having to get tweets and posts signed off two weeks in advance.”
He added that it was difficult for this insider because she was working for an agency. “Companies often outsource their social media to an agency . . . but they don’t know what it’s like to work on a supply line or be in the boardroom.”
At the same time, Rory Ahern, a director at Rubber Republic, the advertising agency which helped produce Bodyform’s video, warns against relying on “corporate speak”: “You’ve got to be sensitive to the underlying tone of the conversation . . . Speak with a human voice. Advertising speak in a pub will get you a punch in the face. Think of it like that.”
It is worth looking at it from a different point of view, when the whole internet world is watching, says Alan Webber, a risk management analyst at Altimeter, a research group. “A great way to think about this is . . . if you made a mistake and it was with your mum, how would you respond to your mum?”