Nestle learns an important lesson in social media management

Last week, Nestle got itself into a bit of a situation on its Facebook page. Following accusations by Greenpeace that the confectionery company was using palm oil sourced from deforested areas in Indonesia, the company's Facebook Page was overrun by disgruntled campaigners urging a boycott of its products, and the firm was forced to put out a statement on its corporate Web site.

Nestle had, at first, been trying to firefight the situation on its Facebook page, without much success. Caustic responses to the angry brigade, and attempts to delete unwanted comments merely fanned the flamewar, and the company ended up by posting the comment , "Social media: as you can see, we're learning as we go. Thanks for the comments."

We've already seen how the big guys are using blogs to fight back against their critics, but Nestle's attempt to manage its social media sites is an epic example of misunderstanding the medium. The company uses Twitter extensively--its CSV account, unsurprisingly, has more followers than any of its corporate accounts--and has over 200,000 fans on its Facebook page, an increase of 125,000 over the weekend. Bet on most of the newbies not actually being "fans."

Jeremiah Owyang has been following the crisis and has come up with some useful guidelines for large companies who are getting into social media. Use an experienced community manager rather than an intern to manage your social media. Create a community strategy. Have an established plan for those times when your site is overrun by brand-jackers, and practice it regularly.

How else could Nestle have avoided this?

TRANSPARENCY: Without a doubt the executives at Nestle were concerned about the Greenpeace issues. Most likely there are several senior executives who are actually environmentally sensitive themselves. You may believe they are all heartless  but that’s simply not the case, they are people like you and me. But if they had told people they are trying to find ways to work this out, make everyone happy and protect the environment, things would have cooled down.

SILENCE: When you’re talking at a snail’s pace, and everyone around you is talking in real-time, you’re going to lose. Issuing a press release every 2 weeks would have worked 5 years ago, maybe. But today we have CNN and Sky News and you don’t stand a chance if that’s your PR plan. You must meet the medium with the medium and respond in kind and in pace. Silence is deafening.

AUTHENTICITY: It’s clear when you tell me you’re concerned about my problem and you’re doing everything you can to help me and your honest goal is to do it by 2015- Five years from now! That you’re full of BS. You know it, I know it, and everyone else knows it too. That part is obvious to everyone. Be real.

The Damages: There are likely a core of Greenpeace supporters who will avoid Nestle products for a long while. And if Nestle backslides on their commitment to Greenpeace the movement may be easily resurrected.

But there can be no doubt that we have seen the first case of successful environmental activitism which took place mainly in social media. Following on the heels of this success we can expect more of the same.