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Corporate responsibility is a tricky issue in an increasingly social and connected world. Consumers now have more means than ever to share and communicate their concerns with how companies do business.

This week, Nestle found itself on the wrong side of an angry group of consumers. And thanks to a few misplaced comments on Facebook, the swell of negative sentiment against the company is still growing.

The whole thing started with a palm oil supplier that Nestle uses in Indonesia. Sinar Mas has been repeatedly accused of illegal deforestation and peatland clearance. Late last year, Greenpeace released a report with allegations against Sinar Mas clearing rainforest land without permits. Those claims led Unilever and Kraft to suspend contracts with the company. But Nestle said it would do its own investigation before severing ties.

Now Greenpeace has redoubled its efforts, with a new shock ad and campaign against Nestle. The company has responded by restating its "commitment to using only "Certified Sustainable Palm Oil" by 2015, when sufficient quantities should be available."

They've also stopped working with Sinar Mas, and insist that palm oil from Sinar Mas was only used for minor manufacturing in Indonesia.

Greenpeace and Nestle protesters aren't exactly happy that it will take until 2015 for Nestle to get rid of all non-sustainable palm oil, but the storm has really grown out of a misstep on the company's Facebook page. 

As happens in these situations, consumers took to social media to complain about the brand. And Nestle's Facebook page quickly filled up with angry complaints from the site's users. A few of them changed their profile pictures to take a jab at Nestle. And that's when the company started firing back, with comments like this:

“To repeat: we welcome your comments, but please don’t post using an altered version of any of our logos as your profile pic – they will be deleted.”

And then variations of the following exchange quickly spread online:

Paul Griffin Hmm, this comment is a bit "Big Brotherish" isn't it? I'll have whatever I like as my logo pic thanks! And if it's altered, it's no longer your logo is it!
 
Nestle @Paul Griffin - that's a new understanding of intellectual property rights. We'll muse on that. You can have what you like as your profile picture. But if it's an altered version of any of our logos, we'll remove it form this page.
 
Paul Griffin Not sure you're going to win friends in the social media space with this sort of dogmatic approach. I understand that you're on your back-foot due to various issues not excluding Palm Oil but Social Media is about embracing your market, engaging and having a conversation rather than preaching! Read www.cluetrain.com and rethink!

Subsequently, the numbers of angry commenters and Twitterers are growing. The company's stock has been dropping, and Nestle's social media attempts are quickly being declared a FAIL.

Nestle has gotten into trouble with corporate responsibility before. In addition to the company's involvement with Sinar Mas, they've had other global issues, including ongoing problems with marketing baby formula in the third world.

But while people were already upset with Nestle's business practices, this situation demonstrates how much more potent issues of corporate responsibility become in a venue like social media where consumers can so easily be heard.

The cost of writing an angry Facebook message to a consumer is zero, as this message on Nestle's wall right now proves:

Anya Redgewell I love this!!! Facebook has made being an activist so much easier! Stop chocking the planets lungs and destroying its diversity Nestle, we won't stop until you do!

Consumers don't need to check their facts or know much about global deforestation to chime into a PR storm like this. Just this week, David Jones, the global chief executive of Havas Wordwide, brought up the problems corporations face with social responsibility online:

"Social media is inherently a more negative than a positive medium on many levels. Lots of stuff that is passed around is negative. If you are a brand or a company today you should be far less worried about broadcast regulations than digitally empowered consumers. What is an ASA sanction versus a [negative] sanction from a couple of million people if you are not authentic?"

The burden of proof is on corporations to prove that they are addressing issues like this. But in social media, that can mean fighting a losing battle. Disgruntled consumers are now empowered to communicate and share their negative opinions. Meaning that if your brand is not willing to address and respond to the complaints being filed, corporate social media pages can just serve as a receptacle for complaint pile-ups.

Case in point: right now, there are plenty of negatively altered Nestle logos on the company's Facebook page. And Nestle has changed the corporate statement on its Facebook page to the following:

"Social media: as you can see we're learning as we go. Thanks for the comments."

Image: Muriel Philippi's Facebook page

Meghan Keane

Published 19 March, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

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Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

Re: David Jones -- Did we need "social media" to realize the power that consumers have? Or has the Web simply amplified and expedited consumers comments and criticisms? Also... Paul Griffin.... Since when does the "social media space" rank. Specifically in a world where any publicity remains good publicity. Are companies losing customers over this -- or recent Twitterjackings? Are they losing anything at all, really? What proof does anyone have? Who's going to stop buying Nike after the Tiger Woods debacle? Who HAS stopped? If you think about it, we're talking this entire thing up here -- generating noise about a Nestle being a naughty company. What's the take-away to common folk? I argue: Nestle-on-your-mind. And consider this: We're investing all this time talking about broken promises by a company that promised to stop buying non-sustainably produced poison. Nestle's built its business on poisoning the world with stuff like palm oil -- to boost profits. Isn't THAT the issue here? Shouldn't it be? Palm oil has been proven to be a fast-track to heart disease (palmitic acid is the source of much of the saturated fat found in palm oil and what studies show contribute to heart disease). So where's the outrage over the poisoning of consumers? I guess I shouldn't be surprised. In the US we all seem quite happy to distract ourselves with who's PAYING for disease rather than a solution to prevent it -- like banning toxins... like palm oil! There truly is no downside (that I can see) to these early forms of "brand backlash" we're seeing in social media.... outside of people like us saying "shame shame." And what does it amount to... really?

over 6 years ago

Jonathan Salem Baskin

Jonathan Salem Baskin, Author at Histories of Social Media

"The company's stock has been dropping" concurrently with some part of this Facebook tsunami, therefore they're casually linked. We should similarly give credit to the conversation for causing the Sun to move across the sky, as well as allowing for various lottery numbers to be winners around the world. Molander is right: the mob will disperse as quickly as their easy clicks allowed them to aggregate.

over 6 years ago

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Alexa Stephen

During their physical and social mapping of the Boreal Forest, Greenpeace discovered that over 90% of the southern part of the forest was being clearcut. According to Conservation International, deforestation contributes approximately 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – more than cars, trains and planes combined. So the next step was to follow the supply chain from the destructive logging companies to the end-consumers, and the largest product company purchasing the wood fiber: Kimberly-Clark. Thanks & Regards Alexa Stephen datarecoverysoftware.com

over 6 years ago

Laney Liner

Laney Liner, Owner at Blue Thunder Creative Group, Inc.

Just like Toyota, Nestle needs a social media damage control strategy that also has to be properly executed.  

over 6 years ago

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LSM

I cannot help but feel this has now turned into a reputation crisis that could have been avoided so easily. All they had to do was keep calm, not be snarky (you can NEVER be snarky with consumers, online or offline!) and explain that they have already cancelled the contract with Sinas Mar. They've had their press release as their status message for 19 hours now but nobody cares anymore, just because a few Nestle reps decided to act like complete idiots. Pick your Social Media representation well, that's the only moral of this story.

over 6 years ago

Jonathan Salem Baskin

Jonathan Salem Baskin, Author at Histories of Social Media

LSM is right. Again, what crisis? This stuff is ephemeral, not real...

over 6 years ago

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Ejaz Asi

Nestle is talking to facebookers in a language the citizens of facebook can't appreciate and perhaps tolerate. Nestle is perhaps not even aware that if they came up with a response that the customers or audience doesn't appreciate or think is transparent enough or just enough, the spoof of that message would reach more people than the actual one. In response to Molander, may be right now the tangible difference is not there and people just create noise before moving on to other areas but somewhere it has given an opportunity to people like us to talk about it, bring it up in board meetings or conferences and pressurize corporations to show more transparency and act more responsibly. If the digital realm and the power and undermining of authority that it brings with itself can not save us, what will?

over 6 years ago

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Andrew Sansone

Social Media's impact on March Madness http://bit.ly/bhwLx1

over 6 years ago

Paul Bennison

Paul Bennison, Head of Business Development at Infegy EU

The key to putting htis right is to identify the influencial persons, engage with them and try to stop the rot from penetrating further into their business by being open and honest - and not emnploying old school 'PR' tactics.

As an asidem check out http://bit.ly/9wLGpT for some analysis into what the impact on Nestle's brand was last Friday.

over 6 years ago

Rob Mclaughlin

Rob Mclaughlin, VP, Digital Analytics at Barclays

Simple a cases of Nestle not having the right people on the job. marketing 101: understand your medium

over 6 years ago

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Tracy

I think it is great that we now have the ability to unite as one for a common goal. Nestle have enough money to source legal Palm oil, they need to take action, this will not go away. I am a campaigner against their iresponsibility.

over 6 years ago

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Consultant Guy

Geez

Another way for one of you consultant schysters to make more money. 

Those that can, do.  Those that can't, find something that one of the do'ers has done wrong, cause a bunch of fear off the back of it, and exploit it via expensive consultancy fees.

Go pick some asparagus or some real job, and stop being parasites. 

over 6 years ago

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Shafiq Pontoh

Well, as we see, one of it happen in Indonesia. Another thing is that here in Indonesia, the rise of social-media has given so much to the people to push not only Industries, but also the government. There are lots of case study here in Indonesia (that happens less than 1 year from today) how social media effect the situation. When JW Mariott exploded in Jakarta by the terrorist attack, someone at twitter established #IndonesiaUnite hash tag that encourage Indonesia people to be not afraid and shout to the world to fight against terrorism, even though, Indonesia is one of the largest Muslim populated country. The result is, #IndonesiaUnite become the no.1 Trading Topics in tweeter for several days, beating Paula Abdul resign from American Idol, Iran election, even Michael Jackson Death. This give the result the most effective war against terrorism, since now terrorism has the worst name in Indonesia. There is also a case study on how, a mother of two being jailed because of OMNI International Hospital in Tangerang Indonesia sued her for defamation. What happens is, this created outrage in the social network, and people in indonesia starts to collect coins to set the mother free, and pay her fine. From beggars, teachers, street musicians, taxi drives even lawyers starts to help by collecting the coins (since it was easy to give away coins). The result, less than a week, Rp 850,000,000,- (around $85,000) was collected and OMNI International drop their charges and it's brand is beyond repair. But the huge Social Network campaign in Indonesia was, when the Police arrested two leaders of Indonesian anti-corruption commission (KPK), without a clear accusation, after these two KPK's leader try to arrest an Indonesia "mafia". It started a national outcry for justice. in only 3 days it generated 1,300,000 people supporting the 1,000,000, people help free Bibit/Chandra (the name of the two Indonesian anti-corruption commission) in Facebook. This push the government and the president to open the case to the public (there is a hidden tape that the police hesitate to publish, about a police general connection to one of the "Mafia" leader) Everything are being publish to the public, and the two KPK's leader are freed and the police was taken of from his position. well, I believe Nestle (especially Nestle Indonesia) should have learn from what social-Network has done here in Indonesia, and how it makes the "Consumer is the King" literally. cheers from Indonesia

over 6 years ago

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