Nestle's brave Facebook flop

Faced with an angry mob, a functionary commits, then apologizes for, the ultimate P.R. sin -- acting human

Published March 19, 2010 10:05PM (EDT)

What is the point of social media? I ask, because a whole lot of people are saying right now that Nestle is missing it. And they are positively gleeful about it.

Nestle is currently under fire for sourcing palm oil -- an ingredient in KitKat bars and other Nestle products -- from suppliers who are, according to Greenpeace, destroying rainforest habitat in Indonesia and pushing the orangutan to extinction. Greenpeace produced a video advertisement to this effect, reports Forbes, and then accused Nestle of having the video pulled from YouTube.

Nestle, for its part, has issued a half-hearted public statement declaring its "commitment to using only 'Certified Sustainable Palm Oil' by 2015, when sufficient quantities should be available."

At this juncture we have something like a perfect match: a grandstanding and easily over-excited environmental organization facing off against a multinational company with a long history of ethically questionable business practices. And orangutans!

Enter Facebook. Nestle has a Facebook page, and until this week it was a quiet backwater. But on Wednesday, defenders of the rainforest and its orangutans began to visit, illustrating their profile pictures with various clever permutations of the Nestle logo -- "Nestle Killer" -- and making a series of mean comments about the company. The powers that be weren't pleased. At 11:26 p.m. Thursday night, the moderator of the page posted on the Nestle Wall:

To repeat: we welcome your comments, but please don't post using an altered version of any of our logos as your profile pic -- they will be deleted.

To anyone who has spent more than five minutes on the Internet since 1994, the ensuing reaction was entirely predictable. Rage. Anger. Nasty comments. An acceleration of rampant logo abuse!

Most Internet marketing veterans would likely have just folded up their tents and headed for the hills in the face of an angry online mob. You can't win that kind of fight. But this moderator refused to back down. He (or she) did exactly the opposite -- breaking every rule of corporate public relations ever made. She (or he) was, horror of horrors, rude. AN UNSPEAKABLE VIOLATION OF EVERY HOLY COMMANDMENT IN THE BOOK OF CORPORATE P.R.!

An excerpt of the ensuing dialogue:

Paul Griffin: Hmm, this comment is a bit "Big Brotherish" isn't it? I'll have whatever I like as my logo pic thanks! And if it's altered, it's no longer your logo is it!

Nestle: @Paul Griffin - that's a new understanding of intellectual property rights. We'll muse on that. You can have what you like as your profile picture. But if it's an altered version of any of our logos, we'll remove it form this page.

Paul Griffin: Not sure you're going to win friends in the social media space with this sort of dogmatic approach. I understand that you're on your back-foot due to various issues not excluding Palm Oil but Social Media is about embracing your market, engaging and having a conversation rather than preaching! Read and rethink!

Nestle: Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it's our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus.

Darren Smith: Freedom of speech and expression

Nestle: you have freedom of speech and expression. Here, there are some rules we set. As in almost any other forum. It's to keep things clear.

Paul Griffin: Your page, your rules, true, and you just lost a customer, won the battle and lost the war! Happy?

Nestle: Oh please .. it's like we're censoring everything to allow only positive comments.

Cue the backlash. Jennifer Jones at SpeakMedia:

... [C]oncerned consumers, backed by GreenPeace are trying to engage the brand online about the issue and some placed altered versions of the Nestle logo on their profile pages as a form of protest...and the company's crisis communications response is to post nasty insults? Insane.

Rick Broida at BNET Insight:

It's PR 101: Don't insult your customers. And in PR 2010, mind your manners in public forums -- especially those expressly created for fans of your company! It may be true that there's no such thing as bad press, but there's definitely bad social networking -- and this is a prime example.

And of course the "fans" went wild. For the past 24 hours, Nestle's Facebook page has been a branding nightmare. The moderator himself has gone mostly silent, except to change the welcoming message on the page to "Social media: as you can see we're learning as we go. Thanks for the comments."

And this:

Nestle: This (deleting logos) was one in a series of mistakes for which I would like to apologise. And for being rude. We've stopped deleting posts, and I have stopped being rude.

It's a sad sight, to see a man (or woman) broken by the taunts of an angry mob. But what I find most confounding about this whole sorry display is that the real error here was for the moderator to act like an actual human being. Most corporate public relations is about smoothing all rough edges away with the goal of creating an essentially false version of reality, full of comforting jargon and meaningless buzzwords. Exhibit A: Nestle's official statement on palm oil. Many of the commentators on this Facebook fracas are saying that Nestle should just have kept reiterating what was in that statement and avoided riling the crowd. But what's the point of simply pushing regurgitated pap? How can that be considered good manners? It's managed discourse that means nothing, and I think it's far more degrading to the chances of real communication between corporations and consumers than the damage done by one person who shows his annoyance at a bunch of people who imagine that they are engaging in some form of meaningful social protest by posting complaints about a company while sporting juvenile profile pictures on a Facebook fan page.

Don't get me wrong -- I think the whole concept of fan pages for corporations is stupid to begin with, and I think Nestle has done some truly vile things in the course of its existence on this planet. But I gotta say I'm kind of loving the nameless gal (or guy) who had the temerity to tell his (or her) critics "Consider yourself embraced." That was real! That was awesome.

He or she will never make that mistake again, of course, and that just contributes to our greater social detriment. Because if we are going to use social media to its fullest capacity, it should be to help us make real connections between people -- not to attack them when they reveal their own humanity.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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