When in doubt, blame social media.
An Australian man gets an 11-inch sandwich from Subway, posts about it on Facebook, and the sandwich chain faces a minor social media catastrophe and a handful of not-quite-footlong lawsuits. Best Buy issues an email coupon with too few restrictions, and it gets shared on social media. Hundreds of customers flock to the stores, only to be turned away. How many of those customers do you think will ever come back?
And then there is the Greek yogurt company Chobani. They issue a voluntary "withdrawal," pull possibly-contaminated stock from stores, and a tweet by a grocery store stock person about the yogurt turns a minor inconvenience into a massive uproar, and a recall.
Butterfly or 'Twitterfly' Effect
The company tried to handle the mold problem quietly. They issued a voluntary withdrawal of their product, asking stores to pull product and ship it back. A social media analysis cited by The Wall Street Journal found 38 tweets about mold and Chobani before September 1, including the tweet by the grocery store employee about a "recall."
Chobani tweeted back, arguing that they did not "recall" a product. The grocery store worker responded, stating that he had seen the recall notice. At this point, an isolated tweet became a conversation between a big company and someone who otherwise would've received no attention.
(Per FDA definitions, there is a difference between a voluntary withdrawal and a recall. The latter requires a press release.)
On September 1, the voluntary withdrawal became a recall, and one has to wonder how much Twitter had to do with it.
Managing the Crisis
Chobani told the Journal that they eventually had to bring on extra staff and outside resources to handle the volume of social media and telephone inquiries, and that the company wished it had done so sooner.
According to the International Business Times, the company's response has received mixed reviews on its Facebook page, with some customers frustrated over the slow claim filing process, while others praised the company for its quick response and free yogurt coupons.
And while the company seemed to be trying to keep the mold issue quiet initially (by voluntarily withdrawing the product rather than issuing a press release and a recall), their communication now seems to be much improved, with multiple posts on their website and Facebook describing the exact contaminant (a mold commonly found in food production that poses little risk to consumers) and large graphics that help consumers decode the production label to determine if their yogurt is at risk.
Well, if you're trying to keep a possible PR nightmare quiet, we wouldn't discuss the matter on Twitter.
Otherwise, do what Chobani did, only do it much faster. You need a crisis plan, to address social media, phone calls, and written inquiries, in place before the nightmare begins. Also, the sooner you provide information to consumers, the more credibility you have. If you wait until the story had broken, you've lost the ability to dictate the narrative.
- Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and the Cyclospora Outbreak: 3 Lessons (FindLaw's In House Blog)
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- 2009 Peanut Recall - Things to Consider for Corporate Catastrophes (FindLaw's In House Blog)