Brands are normally seen as the bullies; corporate monsters taking advantage of the little guy. But they aren’t just a logo, a uniform or an ad. They are made up of multiple individuals working in different branches on different levels. And often it’s the people lower down the chain who bear the brunt of angry customers, as any front of house hospo worker or call centre operator or social media manager will know. So in light of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill passing its third reading, and following some recent anger directed at the likes of Nestle, Cadbury, Ticketek and many others, we decided to ask a few New Zealand companies with 'passionate' followers a potentially stupid question: have they ever felt like they've been bullied online?
For most part we got a classic PR response, with most brands saying they like keeping online communication channels open, so if customers/consumers are angry, then at least they know about it. But we have heard stories of social media managers being brought to tears after having to respond to a flurry of harsh comments.
The most detailed response was probably from Spark’s PR manager Lucy Fullarton who said: “We have a fantastic community on Facebook and Twitter … We have a good time chatting, largely it’s positive. Social channels for us are the best places to find out how customers are feeling in real time. Good or bad. But even if they are upset we would rather they told us or we can’t fix the problem.”
She says there’s probably a difference between the individual and the brand. "But as a brand we just have to accept that people are a bit unhappy and put on our big boy or girl pants and deal with it,” she says. “There is an element where occasionally trolls will pop up. They’re pretty rare. But what we generally find is that our community tends to moderate itself. It’s really interesting. We obviously have a policy that unless something is really, really offensive we won’t ever remove it unless it will offend our community as a whole. We find our commenters jump in and defend us if people are over the top, but we think that’s what it’s there for, so people can tell us what they think.”
2degree’s Charlene White says it hasn’t really experienced any major harassment or backlash. “We have always been upfront and honest with our customers/Facebook followers. We really welcome and appreciate feedback. When there is a problem or someone leaves a negative comment, we always respond pretty quickly so it doesn’t get out of hand. In some cases we take it offline to work directly with the person(s) involved – mainly so we can safely get their personal details and work to resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. In our six years of operation, this approach has always served us well.”
StopPress contacted Vodafone but hasn’t had a response.
Qantas-owned Jetstar is a well-known complaint factory, with several articles online dedicated to the topic. A Stuff article says angry customers even set up a copycat Jetstar website called dontflyjetstar.com and a corresponding Facebook page with a layout that was the same as the airline’s page. “The dontflyjetstar.com page uploads complaints on a sometimes daily basis, ranging from overbooked flights, to rude staff and refund delays.”
Jetstar corporate communications manager Phil Boeyen says: “We consider social media outlets very much an open dialogue. We are happy to get feedback, we learn from that feedback, we respond to that feedback and we certainly use it as a measure of what we are doing right and where we can improve."
Social media marketing agency Socialites’ Wendy Thompson gave me her two cents on the matter: “You can’t bully a brand, but you can bully community managers, brands’ representatives on social media. This happens daily on all big corporates [social media sites], especially in the service industry or contentious industries. Some examples are Spark, Vodafone, McDonald’s, any of the banks. A community manager’s job is to represent a brand, similar to a sales staff in-store, or at the call centre. And therefore they get the brunt of disgruntled, as well as happy customers.”
“Talking to my head of community management Lizi Oldham, when bullying happens it really is an unpleasant experience. Especially when at the end of the day, like shop and call centre staff your job and what you do is to help people.”
She says companies can address bullying up front by having community rules in place. “These are really important as they give clear guidelines on what and what isn’t acceptable behaviour and the ramifications of breaking rules."
There is a fine line with brands, she says, because people have a right to express themselves. "But basically as soon as a person gets personal then that crosses the line and we consider that bullying. We’ve had to employ the 'ban-hammer' on a few occasions over the years. Luckily, not too often."
Many seem to love bringing fury down upon brands and we seem to react online for a few reasons: they can’t yell back (although some have had success by doing just that), we’re stronger in numbers (Cadbury knows all about that after it bowed to pressure and removed palm oil) and brands don't like their dirty laundry being aired publicly so a social slagging off tends to get better results for customers than if complaints are raised privately. Even people who are usually pretty happy-go-lucky in nature can switch to extreme anger over an ice cream going up ten cents. Much like those soft-spoken types that are all calm and lovely but as soon as you get in a car with them they abuse every driver in sight from behind the safety of their wheel.
It can be cathartic discussing with our friends how useless a service was, how unfair the arbitrary fees are, how the product doesn’t taste the same anymore or how it’s smaller or more expensive than it used to be. And while these complaints aren’t necessarily unfounded, it seems the often extreme reactions are (cue stories about 'outraged customers' before the crowd quickly forgets their 'outrage' and gets on with their lives). The sun still rises and sets, chocolate is still available, life goes on. And, on the plus side, we could probably consider ourselves fortunate to be complaining about recipe changes or the internet cutting out rather than having to deal with repressive regimes.
The accepted—but generally ignored—rule is 'never read the comments', but as anyone in the ad industry who has had a negative comment about their latest campaign, or as any journalist who has been lambasted by someone for their latest story could probably attest, those comments do have an impact. There are people behind those corporate social media accounts. And, as Jon Ronson's latest book shows, public shaming can have pretty serious results.