Social media business bullies: Getting back reputational control

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Social media gives virtually anyone the opportunity to share information and opinions on any given topic. The platform has changed the face of consumer engagement and communication strategy forever, yet the implications of this are only just being realised.

The outcome of a recent social media campaign instigated by opponents to Australian halal food certification organisations provides a stark example of the risk that businesses face in engaging with social media. The online ‘bullying’ activity of vocal anti-halal campaigners has resulted in several Australian businesses withdrawing their certification, causing the loss of significant export contracts to Islamic countries, and in some instances causing businesses to remove their social media page.

The term ‘halal’ refers to foods which are prepared in compliance with religious requirements, making them acceptable for consumption by people of the Muslim faith. The anti-halal campaign claims that the purchase of halal certified products is an inadvertent terrorism funding activity and intends to inform consumers through lobbying of businesses on social media.

The use of social media for customer engagement is popular because its word of mouth platform provides quick and easy access to credible information by users. However, businesses are increasingly being challenged by the potential for ill-informed or unfounded comments or campaigns to ‘go viral’. This can jeopardise brand reputation and has potentially destructive consequences. Reputational crisis management and public relations strategies for social media are more relevant than ever.

Recently the South Australian Fleurieu Milk & Yoghurt Company has experienced the negative consequences of spamming activities by anti-halal campaigners on social media. As a result of the ‘bullying’, Fleurieu withdrew its halal certification at the expense of a $50,000 contract with Emirates airline and also made the decision to remove its Facebook page.

The inability of businesses to control social media has resulted in them witnessing the robbery of their own brand. While recent moves by the Federal Government are attempting to counteract the issues through partnering with social media websites, the issue will not dissolve. Businesses need to be proactive: taking preventative action and putting in place contingency strategies to protect against reputational damage.

Engaging online is the first essential step to prevention. Social media is a platform with incredible potential for communicating and engaging with customers in a way which cannot be equalled in terms of effectiveness, reach and efficiency. It gives insight into the needs and wants of consumers more intimately than could otherwise be possible because businesses can seek feedback. By understanding these needs and wants, businesses can build customer loyalty and create positive brand perceptions while guarding against the risks of negative coverage.

Consumer engagement is also about keeping customers ‘in the loop’ with what the business is doing and planning. A business considering halal certification for example, ought to inform customers about what the term means, why they are making the decision and what, if any, implications it will have for them. By initiating the message, the business can maintain greater control over how it is represented in the wider media and take back control of their brand.

While it is often said that ‘prevention is better than cure’, this is not always achievable. Pre-emptive community and customer engagement can help to better understand the extent of risks in the increasingly complex social media field and guide action. In a fast-paced world of big opportunities and equally large risks in social media, good public relations management will be the key to using this valuable platform to your business’s advantage.

Font PR offers a course in crisis management for media and social media. If you would like to register for training, click here.

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