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How do companies cope with social media criticism?

Posting in Technology

At Nestle's headquarters, the firm's Digital Acceleration Team are part of a growing trend taking place in businesses worldwide -- monitoring social media for brand damage control.

Nestle is one of many companies -- including PepsiCo, Danone and Unilever -- who are not only using online channels for marketing or research, but who also use social media for damage limitation, according to Reuters.

Social media is a double-edged sword. It is a global platform which allows immediate, public, global communication -- but this can be positive or negative. If a consumer has a bad experience, it can go viral to the detriment of the brand, but sites like Twitter can also be used to open a channel between consumer and business for immediate troubleshooting.

Due to this, Nestle said that the firm's spending on social media advertising has doubled in the last few years.

"People have been complaining about companies forever, but before, they did it at the water cooler or at the bar," said Bernhard Warner, co-founder of London-based consultancy Social Media Influence. "Now they are doing it online and spreading their complaints to disparate communities."

At the digital HQ, the team are tasked with "listening, engaging, transforming and inspiring." In other words, they monitor how customers react to brands and products online, troubleshoot, and are on-call to spot trouble.

Using software that captures millions of posts and comments of interest to the company, the team can detect a negative trend when it first begins to emerge, and then work on resolving the problem.

There is a list of do's and dont's that staff must follow, such as disclosing their relationship to the firm, but in many ways, social media is still an experimental area where the team have to make up rules as they go along.

When Greenpeace posted a fake advert containing Nestle's KitKat as a protest against buying rainforest-damaging palm oil, originally the firm tried to have the video taken down. After a barrage of over 200,000 protest emails and an online backlash which only served to promote the video, Nestle sat down with Greenpeace to plan a policy against deforestation.

Going on the defensive only makes the problem worse, and knowing how to act professionally online -- where communication can be screenshot and set in stone -- has been a tough lesson for businesses across the board.

Warner says:

"One of the most significant things that has happened in the corporate world in the last 10 years is this idea of being respectful of and monitoring not just what your fans have to say but also your critics. It has completely changed the world of crisis management and reputation management and all the training that goes into it."

What does this mean for companies today? Social media makes businesses vulnerable. Instead of being restricted to complaining through official channels, anyone can create a parody video, meme, or send a disparaging comment across global platforms in a second.

Whether a corporation sees marketing or research value in social media is irrelevant -- businesses now have to be present, if only for the purpose of damage control and risk management.

— By on October 25, 2012, 8:05 PM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure