Food companies and consumers have never been so well connected, with social media providing a platform for simple and direct communication as never before.
And while this can work in a company’s favour while the going is good, social media can quickly backfire and spin out of a company's control – as Coca-Cola found out when it was tricked into tweeting snippets of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, to give an example of just one company's online blunder.
So should social media be embraced or avoided if a company finds itself embroiled in a serious food scandal?
For Alice Cadman, director of business development and marketing at Leatherhead, marketing teams in food businesses are fully aware of the stakes at play.
“If consumers start to question the authenticity or origin of the ingredients, years of marketing investment can be undermined in a matter of hours,” she told FoodNavigator.
If you decide to use social media to weather a food scandal storm, consider taking Steve Osborn's advice on board:
- Make social media management an integral part of crisis management – with documented procedures
- Acknowledge all complaints on the social media platform
- Don’t deny any involvement or responsibility
- Apologise for the dissatisfaction, and take the discussion offline
- Announce the ‘close out’ on the same social media platform it was announced
- Provide regular reassurance for ongoing issues
- Consider the tone of the social media platform – avoid being flippant
- Remember a well-managed response can even enhance a company’s reputation.
Food and beverage consultant at Aurora Ceres Steve Osborn said that it was the quick-fire nature of social media that was intimidating – but that food companies could protect themselves by having a Twitter/Facebook/Reddit crisis management strategy in place.
“The instant nature of social media is a significant concern to brands and retailers alike, as the potential for immediate exposure by an angry customer [can] reach a wide audience quickly.
Osborn said that social media were crucial in restoring consumer confidence after a shock.
“Companies can recover from food safety crises – if they are responsive. If they fail to acknowledge an issue has been raised, fail to investigate and fail to implement corrective action then the implications can be catastrophic.
This had always been the case, he said, but was much more important in today’s era of instant 24 hour communication.
But not everyone is convinced that a well-managed social media response is important in restoring consumer confidence.
Euromonitor analyst Jack Skelly said food scandals damaged sales for a brief period of time only. After a few months the controversy had either been forgotten or replaced by another and sales returned to normal – and it was difficult to say with certainty whether this had anything to do with a company’s heartfelt Twitter apology.
Skelly pointed to sales of meat in Western Europe, which have recovered to their pre-horsemeat level following a 6% increase in 2014.
“Everyone has cognitive dissonance about these issues – we tend to say one thing and ignore evidence that suggests we are contradicting this. This applies to purchasing habits in shops as much as anything else – many people probably stated that they would never buy non-responsibly sourced meat again, but no doubt went back to their typical ways of shopping after a few months.”
Leatherhead food scentist Monee Shamsher offered a middle road, saying that food crises needed to be prevented by practical measures with concrete results, such as tighter supply chains and DNA testing - and social media were not an end in themselves, but did play an essential role in communicating these efforts to consumers and restoring confidence.
“We can be certain that there will be another case of food fraud on the scale of horsegate somewhere down the line. Future fraud will be very widely reported in conventional and social media, it will quickly escalate to become a ‘vote catcher’ with the associated bad brand publicity and consumer rejection,” she wrote in a Leatherhead white paper.
“By embracing new analytical methods for fraud detection and conveying their use to external audiences, brands can reassure consumers.”