When social media goes wrong…

Social media can be a hugely powerful communications tool but it can also cause real reputational damage if it is not managed effectively.

I’ve recently been following a social media campaign from a major pharmaceutical company. In 2012, the company discontinued a range of over-the-counter medical products that my father uses. So, I offered to find out why they had been suspended and whether they would be available again.

My first port of call was the company’s Facebook page. Many customers had already complained and this is where their marketing started to fall apart. The company tried to reassure customers that the products had been temporarily suspended pending regulatory reviews. Each and every month, they assured customers that the products would be returning to shops ‘shortly’ but the timescales just kept changing.

Customer frustration

By the summer, customers were beginning to get a little frustrated – but the company then insisted that their products would return in the autumn. By Christmas, many customers were angry, accusing the company of ‘lies’, ‘deceit’ and trying to fob them off. Some even came up with conspiracy theories – believing that these products had been discontinued to make way for cheaper and less effective alternatives. One customer even started an online e-petition and a Facebook campaign.

A PR disaster

As an independent bystander, it looked to me like a spectacular PR disaster for the company. For me, the issue wasn’t the delay in returning the products to the shelves but the lack of reliable, accurate information. In the face of constant criticism, the PR team would only confirm that the products would return ‘shortly’ – but this got a little tired after a while.

Just to add further insult, the company regularly posted trivial facts and figures on their Facebook page, including top tips to help customers manage their health with stress-relieving exercises. This approach served only to alienate their customers further. The products still aren’t back on the shelves and many customers are claiming they would never buy from this supplier again.

Be honest, upfront and realistic

The lesson in all this is that you can’t pull the wool over your customers’ eyes. Always be honest, upfront and realistic and never patronise your target audience.

Most importantly, keep communicating with your customers and, in an age of social media, don’t underestimate their power and influence.

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