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 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
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