Is It Time To Stop Listening to Social Media?

By: Guest | May 3, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Elissa Freeman

Shhhh. Can you hear it? It’s the sound of yet another corporate giant falling to its knees after a tidal wave of social media criticism.

Corporate capitulation is happening with frightening regularity these days. We no longer look at the Fortune 500 as impenetrable monoliths; instead, they now appear as dominoes ready to topple at the first flick of public outcry via the Twitterverse.

When do ‘we the people’ stop having a point? And when do we as communicators stop listening to it?

Are we counseling our clients/organizations to respond because it’s the right thing to do or are we being bullied into it via the blogosphere?

Effective social media advocacy campaigns typically start with a like-minded demographic – underlining the ‘strength in numbers’ theory.  Mom bloggers first made waves with the makers of Motrin and then took public umbrage at JC Penney’s “I’m too pretty to do homework” T-shirt debacle.  In both cases, McNeil Laboratories and JC Penney bowed to the pressure and removed their campaigns.

More recently, the public outcry over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s anti-Planned Parenthood stance created a unified voice for the undoing of social injustice.  Yet, the call for Mars, Inc. to donate proceeds from accelerated sales of Skittles spurred by the Trayvon Martin case falls into the “this is what we think you should do so do it” category.

It appears we may need to start putting a different filter on what constitutes best practices when providing counsel on social media response.  Any worthy PR pro will have already integrated social media plans into their client or organizational communications strategy or provided counsel on audience engagement and response.

But is the frequency of public demands via social media creating a ‘cry wolf’ mentality? Just because social media makes water cooler conversation public, how do we gauge the effect it should have on the corporate conscience?

I’ve created a list of thought-starters that I will use as filters the next time I need to provide counsel on a response to a social media outcry.

  1. Consider the demographic. Do they affect my business? Are they an organized entity?
  2. Prevent knee-jerk reactions. Do we need to respond? Now or later?
  3. Implement good crisis communications. The rules still apply depending on the severity of the situation.

Are there any others?  How do you judge when and when not to respond?

Elissa Freeman is vice president, PR and communications for the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games. You can find her on Twitter @elissapr.

  • I think a key here is recognizing the difference between a groundswell and a very vocal minority. In some cases, just a few people who are active on social channels can make it seem as though the sky is falling on top of you. We need to be discerning. I’ve seen a few cases locally where just a few people have held a business hostage on their own Facebook pages, and to disagree with them makes you look bad. In one case a racial incident at a restaurant blew up on their Facebook page, even though the incident was between two customers and didn’t initially directly involve the restaurant or its employees, it became a shouting match, because there is no way to defend racism. 
    I think your 3 points are great, especially taking the time to examine “who” is behind the complaints. 

    • ElissaFreeman

       Even though we, as PR pros, feel as if social media has been around ‘forever’, I think we forget most people are still so new to the medium.  On the one hand, people understand the importance of being in the space; on the other once they are there, sometimes good common sense goes out the window!

      •  @ElissaFreeman Interesting that this story came across just today as the head of Spirit Airlines says that their high rate of customer complaints is an “irrelevant statistic”…

        • ginidietrich

           @KenMueller  @ElissaFreeman I’ve been thinking about this particular instance, from the perspective of this blog post. I feel badly the guy can’t fly and is nearing the end of his life. I feel badly Spirit couldn’t refund his money. But there is a reason they have that policy. NO airlines refund money. Can you imagine what would happen if they made an exception for this? 
          That said, saying their customer complaints are an irrelevant statistic is really bad communications and there is more here, but on the surface, giving in because people are mad a veteran won’t get a refund is not necessary.

    •  @KenMueller spot on here sir. I think the biggest thing is to take a deep breath and see what is being said by whom rather than worrying on the perception. A small minority can deliver a groundswell, but at the end of the day do they impact your bottom line.I think the best case of this is the Ragu and dad drama that rolled out last year.

      •  @jeffespo and to make matters even worse, even if it is a vocal minority, we have to make sure that those watching from the outside don’t think that the vocal minority represents a majority. Perception is big, and  @ElissaFreeman said, we need to implement good crisis communications. 
        The wild card in all of this can be the media. The media craves “a good story” and controversy makes a good story. So potentially, they might pick up on that vocal minority and legitimize them by giving them press. 
        I might get bashed for saying this, but in many ways, I think this is what happened with the OWS movement. I don’t think it was nearly as big or as effective as many might like us to believe. I watched the local version closely and was somewhat mystified as to their goals.

        •  @KenMueller We do not negotiate with terrorists 

      • ElissaFreeman

         @jeffespo  @KenMueller
         And? A groundswell of Ragu is NOT a pretty thing.  Just sayin’…

      • ginidietrich

         @jeffespo  @KenMueller It’s like what happened with Gap, too. They gave in and changed their logo back. But when everything was analyzed, they realized the people complaining about it represented LESS than one percent of their customer base.

  • KDillabough

    @Clarity4theBoss @ginidietrich Thanks Sharon:) How about a word(s) starting with letter R for next wk’s Alphabet post

  • John_Trader1

    Smart post Elissa, and very thought provoking. As social media has matured, it’s become obvious that it is evolving into not only a viable platform to voice opinions, concerns and protests to rally others around a cause but also a springboard for consumer bullying because all of a sudden you have a medium that broadcasts your message to all corners of the globe so you can connect with others who may have the same opinions as you do and companies are now becoming radically sensitive to criticism and the ripple effect it can have on their brand and bottom line.
    It does indeed spur corporations to now carefully (but swiftly) ascertain the demographic, think about responding just for the sake of responding and not appearing ignorant to lifeguard the brand, and kick into action a well planned crisis strategy if necessary. My thoughts are that your theory is a mix of both good counseling and blogosphere bullying. 

    • ElissaFreeman

       Firstly? Thank you for calling me ‘smart’! Secondly? I think your point on bullying is well taken.  The way we respond as adults to corporate bullying isn’t much different than the way we likely responded when we were kids: afraid to provoke, give in or fight back.  I think you’re onto something here….

  • I think this is a case where the positives outweigh the negatives. Social media is inherently a great thing for the majority of brands. It provides a 24/7 look into what your customers and potential customers think of you. When there are negatives, it gives the brand a chance to respond and try and make things right or ignore it. Ignoring it is definitely risky- but may prove beneficial if it’s just a vocal minority that u don’t have a vested interest in courting. To quote @RedheadWriting, part of building an unpopular brand is knowing who should go after and realizing that not everyone will like u, understand your biz, have a need for your product and/or could downright hate u, it’s probably a waste of your time and energy to make amends with them. Therefore, there is no straight answer. It completely depends on the biz for how to respond to the naysayers.

    • ElissaFreeman

       It’s kind of like the ‘kindergarten principle’ isn’t it?  Not everyone is going to like you or be your friend.  But for some corporations, that’s a hard concept to understand!

  • Relatedly, this is why mining relevant clickstream data from social channels is still very much in its infancy. Sentiment, for example, is notoriously difficult to measure from social mentions. (I’m fresh off a radian6 webinar with webby2001 on just this topic). The question really becomes how do we look at clumps of data points (like a spate of complaints) and extract meaningful insights from them should we decide they’re saying something meaningful. 

    • shannopop


    • ElissaFreeman

       @jasonkonopinski  great point…I think there’s a large role to be played here with data…but we haven’t yet channeled any efforts to create the right information points. Using data to gain meaningful insight would allow us to be counsel our orgs/clients with more than just protocol…but with some real ‘meat’ behind our strategy.

  • webby2001

    @jasonkonopinski Thanks! And thanks for being on the @radian6 webinar today.

    • jasonkonopinski

      @webby2001 But of course! It’s always good to hear you present. Next stop – #BWENY! @radian6

  • radian6

    @jasonkonopinski Thanks for the mention and glad the webinar could help stir conversation elsewhere!

    • jasonkonopinski

      @radian6 Cheers. 🙂

  • PaulSchooss


    • yepperswootz

       @PaulSchooss cool

  • ginidietrich

    @jaystancil Ha!

    • jaystancil

      @ginidietrich 🙂

  • I hadn’t heard about the Skittles thing.  If they bow to that pressure, I’ll never eat their candy again.

    • I might even aggressively eat a piece of fruit!  That’d show them.

      • ElissaFreeman

         Can you imagine? REAL fruit? What a novelty!!

  • Pingback: HEADS UP: Pick of the Orchard()

  • elissapr

    @NancyCawleyJean @ginidietrich Thank you for the RT of my post!

    • NancyCawleyJean

      @elissapr My pleasure!!

  • elissapr

    @rodeenas thank you for the RT of my post!

  • yepperswootz


    • PaulSchooss

       @yepperswootz ur too cool

  • HeatherWhaling

    There was a bit of a dustup in Columbus, OH (where I live) yesterday when a local, beloved retailer discovered that a major, national insurance company HQ’d in Columbus had taken their logo, edited the text and created an internal tool — all while taking a perceived swipe at the retailer. This set off a bit of a social media storm; however, the big corporation was quick to jump in, apologize and explain that they were taking steps to make sure this kind of design oversight wouldn’t slip through the cracks again. It was an interesting example of a major brand meeting in the middle — apologizing and admitting wrongdoing without letting the masses dictate their overall communication strategies. 
     @elissapr You raise a good point. In crisis, if you’re not quick, you’re not relevant. But, that speed needs to be tempered with some smart strategy and a checks-and-balances. Your questions are a good way to begin down that path … smart! 🙂

    • ElissaFreeman

       @HeatherWhaling  I love that example – plagiarism is a great example of when a company should change course. And speed is so important especially if you’re choosing to respond; the longer you wait, the more comments will fill up your facebook page! 

  • EleanorPie

    @elissapr thank you! It was a great post

  • beccasara

    As someone on both sides of the social media world – brand and blogger – I am triple careful about this.  I don’t like to jump on a twitter bandwagon just because everyone else in my stream is in an uproar about something.  I think it will ultimately dilute the power of the influence.  But, I am certainly all in when it’s something I care about like the Komen situation.  As a brand I am incredibly sensitive to online criticism when I think it’s honest, relevant and something we can act on.  But usually it’s just someone with a gripe.  And they are always surprised when we respond with a dose of humor right back.  Fingers crossed we never encounter a wave of twitter rage. 

    • ElissaFreeman

       Glad you weighed in on the subject – as you are a leader in one of social media’s most powerful demos: mom bloggers (and website developer!) I find the mom blogger contingent to be particularly vocal in this space.  Some of it is grandstanding and some of it very astute. The other thing I notice is the “hey, yeah!” effect; there’s alot of bandwagon jumping (esp in the case of the JC Penney T-shirt). 
      When I asked my DD12 about the T-shirt, she replied, “come on, Mom, it’s just a joke.  Don’t people have a sense of humour?”

  • Elissa,
    Response does not equate to capitulation. Answer everything. If the company is in the wrong, own it and offer an action plan. If the company is being judged improperly, logically and politely disagree. Responding in anger is the worst possible thing, followed closely by no response at all. Accessing any opportunity to engage and engaging properly is always a win for the brand.

    • ElissaFreeman

       Good point! Should a company answer? Yes. Change their course of business? Not always.  My point veers towards the latter. If a company decides to play in the social space, they can revel in the ‘good’ but also respond to the ‘bad.’  A company can respond to public concern, I just don’t think they have to always stray from their strategic course.

      • jenzings

         @ElissaFreeman @barryrsilver I differ slightly on this. I don’t think a company is *always* obligated to respond. Trolls and those for whom no answer will be a right answer do not need to be responded to–sometimes, responding to those folks, even in a reasoned and logical manner–does nothing but encourage them to keep batting away at you. This is a very subtle thing, and obviously needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Maybe I’m examining this too closely, but I don’t think a company always needs to respond…I wish I could think of an example, but one is eluding me right now!

  • elissapr

    Thank you for the kind RTs @PaulRobertsPAR @EdenSpodek cc @SpinSucks

  • MelissaSChapman

    THIS blog post is why you are at the top of your game — you look at all sides of the equation and realize that NOTHING is black and white and every situation requires its own unique approach- I do have to say as someone who runs a corporate twitter account I have noticed that being in the social media space customers very much appreciate when they feel a brand has validated their feelings. And the bottom line is brands NEED to be in the social space… it’s not an an option.

    • ElissaFreeman

       But don’t forget, you one of those bloggers who INVITES controversy AND is often willing to air her dirty laundry almost daring people to disagree with you! Most companies would prefer things stay neutral ALL the time (*wishful thinking!*)

  • DavidZandueta

    Although I’m not into PR or social media work as many of you are, I’m glad someone wrote about this. Let’s just say I’ve since become interested in this field, namely how and when to respond.
    I’d like to share what I call a double whammy at the same company in the same year. Delta Airlines got dinged for charging some military personnel some baggage fees in an exceptional scenario
    (and pardon that I’ll be linking a bunch here!):

    Yet, others wrote that Delta actually posted and were consistent on their policies prior to that:

    Soon after, they got dinged again for something they didn’t even do directly “wrong”, though that probably depends on your view:

    Delta, of course, eventually responded:

    So in the first scenario, Delta Airlines arguably “gave in”. In the second, they stood their ground.
    And of course, they’re still flying. Kind of interesting to consider when to do something.
    Just sharing. And again, thanks for writing and everyone commenting here!

    • ElissaFreeman

       Thank you for taking the time to put together that scenario for us!

      • DavidZandueta

         @ElissaFreeman  – You’re welcome. I got that from my previous travel agent days. I came across those in the midst of checking out anything travel-related that potentially involves customer service issues.
        Goes to show that, as someone said, things aren’t necessarily black and white. Personally, one take-away I got from that is to respond if/when someone is materially and directly affected. (e.g. someone getting hurt, money being charged.)

  • toddbacile

    @kmueller62 @ginidietrich gosh I hope not! We are still learning the Do’s and Don’ts. Listening is a priority

  • Hip2Housewife

    I think like anything new, the social media-sphere is going to take some getting used to – both for consumers and for brands.  While no one – SM professional or otherwise – would argue that companies should do anything other than engage with consumers online, the real debate is when, how much, and to what end. I think users are heady with their social media power.  Never before have we had to ability to call out a brand — and have them answer.  So at the moment, brands seem almost too quick to respond to every Tweet, every complaint.
    At some point, brands will get sick of being bullied by bloggers, tweeters and the like.  But until they figure out how to deal with it when it happens, the whole thing is just a PR nightmare.
    That’s why they need people like you.

    • ElissaFreeman

       Awww, I love the last sentence best! But you make a good point – maybe we should be calling this phenomenon ‘corporate cyberbullying’…??

  • jenzings

    I just scanned the comments, and I don’t think I saw anyone reference the Gap logo example. Blogosphere/Twittersphere blew up totally bashing the new logo (which, IMHO was pretty lame, I thought it was an attempt at an Onion-like joke). Gap responded by pulling the logo–but, most of their frequent customers weren’t even aware of the dust-up. An example of social media causing an “over-response” to a situation that would have most likely quickly passed.

    • ElissaFreeman

       Yes! Thank you! I forgot about that one.  In fact, my POV on that whole brouhaha was that it was a ‘manufactured’ PR campaign…

  • That’s the consequence of social media it is either make or break the business. Social media is such a powerful means of advertising and if you don’t know how to play the game then you’ll be sorry. Heard what happened in some mining company, if not you can see the news on <a href=”
    “>Black Hawk Mines Bulletin</a>

  • Very interesting post with a lot to ponder. On one side social media can be useful to hit businesses who deserve it like in the examples above. And now I wish social media will nuke Google for their Penguin update. Not that Google is going to care what internet users think anyway.
    On the other side social media can be a kind of modern witch-hunt.
    Now let’s think about what social media can do when added to search results. Relevancy and quality RIP maybe? Or Justin Bieber fans will tell everyone what is good and what is not? 🙂

    • ElissaFreeman

       @Andrea H. | The Hypnotism Weekly
       I love your last line about the Justin Bieber fans – mainly because it underlines one of my main concerns: we need to discern WHO is making the noise before we consider a major change in strategic direction! Tho’ my daughter would tell you the Justin Bieber fans are a pretty smart bunch…!