FRIDAY 19 MAR 2010 4:22 PM


What started as a PR battle with long-time nemesis Greenpeace has turned into a social media catastrophe for food manufacturer Nestle. Today, its heavy-handed reaction to online critics has been described as a “public relations nightmare”.

The trouble started when Greenpeace produced a video campaigning criticising Nestle’s use of palm oil from unsustainable sources – the oil is used in several Nestle products including KitKats. This was part of a long-running Greenpeace campaign against Nestle’s sourcing of palm oil; Communicate magazine covered its demonstration against Unilever in January 2009 (see ‘When NGOs go ape’).
Greenpeace’s latest video pastiches KitKat’s ‘Take a break’ campaign, and features a bored office worker biting into an orang-utan’s finger and smearing blood over his face.

Nestle's response was to persuade YouTube to remove the video (although it can, for the moment, still be viewed at Armed with this free publicity, Greenpeace managed to gain coverage in several of this morning’s papers.

Cue a torrent of public criticism on Nestle’s Facebook page. Its wall was soon plastered with negative comments and requests to stop using the oil.

That’s when the social media furore really began. Nestle began to delete comments from fans who used altered Nestle logos as their profile pictures. Meanwhile, although it sought to participate in the debate, its responses – or rather those of the employee in charge of its Facebook page – began to betray a noticeably irritable tone; often getting drawn into what can only be described as bickering.

“And what part of 'Nestlé encourages breastfeeding' is not clear?” it said at one point. At other times, it mocked users’ spelling errors.

When this tone was questioned, it replied: “So, let's see, we have to be well-mannered all the time but it's perfectly acceptable to refer to us as everything from idiots right the way down to sons of Satan?”

Users were quick to leap on this. Tom Rafferty, responded: “If you genuinely feel that way, then may I respectfully suggest that you should not be working in corporate communications.” Thomas Walker said: “To the person who is speaking on behalf of nestle. STOP! You're causing yourself a public relations nightmare right now and are seriously damaging your reputation!”

Communications practitioners have expressed disbelief at Nestle’s handling of the criticism. Chris McCrudden, creative director at Speed Communications said: “Sadly, this is a textbook example of how putting the wrong communicator in charge at a difficult time can make a bad situation worse. They just left the wrong person in charge. It's not often you see a $195 billion dollar company behave like an 11-year-old during a playground brawl, but we did today. Its tactical comms response was breathtakingly bad."

Robin Grant of social media specialists WeAreSocial said: “What Nestle did in removing the video was naive. The legal recourse inflames the situation, and brands need to be aware of this. People are acting as a mob today, and the key thing is not to inflame the mob. Nestle’s stance has changed as the day has gone on. They exacerbated the situation by baiting the crowd, but have learnt as the day has progressed.”

That much seems clear. Nestle’s latest status update says: “Social media: as you can see we're learning as we go. Thanks for the comments.”

Tracy Frauzel, head of digital communications at Greenpeace, was understandably pleased. “They’ve made it so easy for us,” she said. "Nestle just don’t seem to have a good understanding as to what happens on the social space."

Nestle declined to comment.