Wendy Knowler masthead
February 13 2012 at 11:01

‘It’s scary not being able to contain your PR – we’re just not in control anymore…”

So said a company CEO to me last week in discussing the impact of the social media revolution.

Not too long ago, companies communicated with their customers and would-be customers via slick advertising and marketing campaigns and invited them to speak back to them by calling their “customer care” line or sending an e-mail. Their response would be a carefully crafted concoction of corporate platitudes along the lines of “we apologise for the inconvenience” and my personal favourite: “We’ve received no other complaints of this nature.”

But gone are the days when companies contain an issue by dealing with consumers individually.

Blogs, Facebook and Twitter have obliterated all hope of such containment – in a matter of hours it’s “out there” for all to read and add their comments. The power is now firmly in the hands of the people, which is a good thing in many ways, because, as I know only too well, there’s nothing like the public airing of an issue to motivate a company to do the right thing.

Sadly, for some, being seen to do the right thing is more important than doing the right thing.

But the general lack of rules and etiquette in this space – and the fact that you can post anonymously – has given rise to a considerable amount of abuse.

Richard Boorman, Vodacom’s acting chief officer of corporate affairs, spoke to Consumer Watch about this last week, sharing some of what he termed “just a few choice messages posted to us on Twitter”. Predictably, some hard core swear words feature strongly, but there’s also the disturbing use of the word “rape”.

As in “I would rape all your families for the s***iest service ever, but thank you”, and (from another tweeter): “GSMed for 6 hours last night. I hope the CEO gets raped.”

And this, from a subscriber who was battling to send someone an SMS: “F*** you into another galaxy you sack of stinking abortion excuse for a network.”

Such “repulsive” threats are a daily occurance, Boorman says.

“We understand people’s very personal 24/7 relationship with their cellphone and internet connectivity, and we fully understand that it’s hugely frustrating when things don’t go right,” Boorman said. “The nature of the technology is that it has limitations and cannot meet the expectation of nothing-less-than-perfection all the time.

“It’s natural that when people get frustrated, they vent their anger on social media and we try not to take it personally. Having said that, there is clear line between expressing frustration and outright abuse and threats. The people sitting in the social media team, just like our call centre agents, are human beings who react the same way as anyone else when faced with a barrage of abuse.”

The company is considering legal action to protect its staff, Boorman says. “It is sad when common sense, and common decency, suggests that a polite, if firm, approach is the best way to get a resolution.”

It’s easy to be nasty to someone when you can’t see their face, says Jessie Rudd, data analyst with PBT, a company specialising in “sentiment analysis” of social networks as a form of business intelligence.

“Human connection gets lost in the great big nothingness of the internet.”

Punctuation and proper spelling, too, alas.

The last year has seen a massive rise in the uptake and infiltration of social networks, blogs, microblogs and forums by businesses, Judd says, with 55% of South African businesses using websites such as Twitter to engage and inform existing customers. “Sentiment analysis” locates and analyses digital content in real time across multiple channels – in other words, it tracks public sentiment about a particular company or brand.

“Companies need to build social media as part of their marketing campaigns, so that they’re proactive, rather than just reactive,” Rudd says. “They need to counterbalance what’s being put out there by consumers and thus manage their brand reputation.”

It’s something Woolworths is painfully aware of in the wake of the Frankies furore.

Naturally, corporates resent having to spend time and energy responding to what they regard as irresponsible, misleading social media comments about their business. This is especially true in the case of recalls.

A classic example was last year’s recall of a batch of banana-flavoured baby food made by Nestlé only for the French market, after a single piece of glass was found in one jar of the product, in France.

There’s little more sensational than the thought of glass in baby food and as a result, messages began circulating on the internet, introducing the brand name Gerber (a US-based subsidiary of Nestlé, unconnected to the French recall) giving the impression that the recall was global.

Dr Corine van Erkom Schurink, PBT’s analytics team lead, throws out a fascinating statistic: of the world’s 6 billion people, 4.8 billion have a phone which gives them access to the internet, as opposed to 4.2 billion who have a toothbrush.

Apparently a lack of attention to personal hygiene is no barrier to having your say about anything or anyone on an international platform.

Of course, being on top of what your customers are saying about you on the net is one thing – having the skills and suss to respond appropriately is another.

Bongi Thabede of Durban ordered a birthday cake – for her son’s fifth birthday party at his school – from her local Spar a few months ago. She stipulated that it should be a “photo cake” and supplied a photo of the boy for this purpose.

No problem, she was told.

Naturally, she was expecting a cake decorated with an edible image of her son. What she got instead was a cake with the actual photo – inedible, naturally – plopped on top of the icing, but because she’d fetched it at the last minute, to rush it to the school, she had no choice but to pay up and take the strange-looking cake.

Furious, she later had a vent on her Facebook wall, which attracted a fair amount of “can’t believe it!” type comments from her friends. Among the comments was one from Spar, a company she’d “befriended” on Facebook some time earlier.

“They apologised and asked me to forward my story to their service department and supplied me with an e-mail address – which I did,” she said.

“The service department contacted me straight away and assured me that Gateway Spar would respond within seven days.

“Ten days went by and no one contacted me, so I posted on Spar’s wall, telling them how dissatisfied I was and the next day the store manager phoned me, listened to my story and apologised.”

Too little, too late, if you ask me.

The social media response was impressively fast, but the old-fashioned follow-up was lacking.

The two need to work hand-in-hand.

Bokomo Foods get the Marmite label right

“Thanks to you and your informative column, we now watch our labels, perhaps too closely,” wrote Mike Dallas of Plumstead, Cape Town.

He went on to question what he thought was either a change in Marmite’s formulation, or a relabelling in order to comply with the new food labelling regulations which come into effect on March 1 and compel manufacturers to disclose a lot more.

He could track the changes, by comparing the labelling of an older bottle of Marmite with a current one.

“It looks and tastes the same, but the new label’s ingredients list includes anti-foaming agent and stabiliser, and some of the 100g proportions have changed.

“We are just concerned that they are substituting ingredients to make it more profitable for them,” he said.

He sent an e-mail to Bokomo Foods (part of Pioneer Foods), but had no response in a week, which is when he e-mailed me. (Corporates, take note.)

The label on the jar he bought last June lists the ingredients as: “Yeast extract, salt, natural flavourant and spices. No artificial flavour or preservatives.”

The jar bought last month has a list which goes like this: “Water, yeast extract, salt, anti-foaming agent, stabiliser, flavouring, spices. Free from preservatives and colourants.”

Interestingly, Dallas also spotted that the salt content of the newer jar was 12% more than that of the old one.

Marmite’s makers responded to my e-mail within a day.

In short, Marmite has not been reformulated at all. A large proportion of Marmite is yeast extract (but water is the main ingredient, which we now know, thanks to the new label) which is a natural product supplied by breweries around the country, and nutritional content varies from batch to batch, hence the difference in the salt content of those two jars. So there you have it!

Oh, as for Pioneer Foods failure to respond to Dallas’s e-mail within a week, a company spokesman told me: “We are in the process of following up with the call centre as to why the consumer has not received a response yet and will rectify that shortly.”

I checked and they did.

Dallas got a call that evening, apologising for the lack of response, followed up by a letter, answering all his questions in detail, the following day.

Check and recheck numbers before doing EFTs

When you’re doing an electronic funds transfer (EFT), or supplying your bank details to someone for them to make an EFT payment into your account, please be particularly pedantic about the account number.

Because if your money lands up in someone else’s account, it’s entirely up to them whether they pay it back to you, or decide to keep their unexpected windfall. Many consumers appear to believe that account details need to be an exact match for an EFT payment to be successful – in other words, that the name of the account holder, the branch code and the account number, all need to be correct. This is sadly not the case – as long as the chosen bank has the account number entered, the transfer will go through. And if the intended recipient develops selective morality and finds some way of justifying why they are entitled to keep the money, there is no way your bank can force them – also their customer – to give up the money, or go into their account and whip out the money. You are entirely at the mercy of that person. I’m sure many do choose to do the right thing, but I only hear about the cases when they don’t. In the most recent, a woman on maternity leave with her first child mistakenly gave an insurance company the number of the savings account she closed some years ago. As a result, the R7 500 pay-out from the “top up” insurance she’d taken out to pay the difference between her doctor’s bills and her medical aid payments landed up in the hands of the woman to whom the bank has since allocated that savings account number. She initially said she’d spent some of the money, but would transfer the rest to the new mother, but that was weeks ago, and no money has been forthcoming. When you’re paying one of your regular beneficiaries via EFT, make very sure that you’ve clicked on the right one – I once paid Truworths instead of Telkom! – and delete any which are no longer valid to cut down on your chances of making a mistake. And if it’s a one-off payment, take time to triple check that you’ve got those numbers right.



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