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Should businesses make all statements social media-proof?

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By Ishbel Macleod, PR and social media consultant

January 25, 2012 | 4 min read

A look at how any form of communication made by businesses to consumers is no longer private, and what this could mean for businesses. Reporter Ishbel Macleod looks at some recent examples where companies have got it right – and wrong.

It used to be the case that if you got sent a ridiculous letter by a company, you would rant about it to a few friends. However, with the growth of social media, consumers are now able to let the world know.

Take LA Fitness. It refused to let a couple out of their contract, despite the fact that she was pregnant, he had lost his job and they had moved. When the couple let the world know, there was a huge social media backlash against the fitness chain, with tweets including ‘I wish I was a member of LA Fitness, just so I could quit and join another gym’ and ‘And you thought customer service in Dubai was bad. Check out this horrible, rapacious gym.’

But social media has not just been used to pinpoint example of what companies do wrong. Sainsbury’s has received praise on Facebook for this letter, sent in reply to three and a half year old Lily Robinson’s query about why tiger bread is called tiger bread. The post has received over 65,000 ‘likes’.

The cynical will say that Chris King (aged 27 & 1/3) was hoping that this would happen with the letter. But even if that is true – is that wrong?

Social media references to a company begun by a consumer must be the cheapest form of publicity – whether it be good or bad. Most people who see the name of a company or brand trending on Twitter would click to see what people are saying about it – especially if it is one they use.

Is it time for businesses to become a little more social media savvy on this front? While it would admittedly be impossible for businesses to be sugar, spice and all things nice all the time to everyone, should they be encouraged to make sure that whatever they say to every customer can be upheld? A one-off negative case (take the ‘Lady Chinky Eyes’ receipt in Papa John’s or the Youtube video of a FedEx employee throwing a computer monitor over a customer’s gate) can lead to a huge backlash.

Should businesses be training all employees on how to make sure they don’t get any flack on social media? Isn’t this something that they should be doing anyway, for the sake of good customer service?

A lot of companies are known to respond faster to tweets complaining about problems than they do to more traditional methods such as letters or phone calls, partially because it is made public. Only a few hours after LA Fitness began trending, the gym began to tweet about it - ‘We would never wish to cause distress to any of our members & offer a wide variety of contract terms which are explained fully on joining.’ – and waived all outstanding fees.

When social media sites pick up a negative story about a business, it tends to jump to attention and try to fix the problem. But wouldn’t an easier solution be to at least attempt to make things social media proof in the first place?

Okay, it might take longer to begin with, but surely the benefits would outweigh the costs – and it would take a lot less time than it would to deal with the flack at the other end.

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