Message to major brands: Social media won't give you cooties

Why do major brands act like social media is the enemy?

Social media is ubiquitous – so much so that you can’t blink without seeing a "how to" story on how marketers and brands use it and how they can use it better. 

In a crisis, social media can also be a comms pro’s best friend, enabling real-time analysis of consumer and media sentiment. So why then do major brands act like social media is the enemy?

Take Chipotle. In the days immediately following the connection of its restaurants to an E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest, the popular, health-focused brand said little in general, and almost nothing on social media. I’m talking proactive, forward-looking comms that tells customers, "We’re having a problem. Here are the details before you hear about them anywhere else. We’ll keep you updated." However, to its credit, the chain did respond to users’ questions and concerns on Twitter.

A few days into the crisis, Chipotle posted an update online, listing the steps it was taking to address the problem. However, it was initially posted to the company’s IR page – not exactly the average customer’s first stop.

It later rolled out a "What Happened?" page, linked from its homepage, which the brand updated daily in the days after customers first started falling ill. And it did take to social media when it was about to reopen closed locations.

Chipotle did itself a disservice by not moving aggressively to communicate with customers – especially the young consumers it covets – where they are: on social media. For one, it’s where many customers with a lot of influence are spending their time. Two, social platforms have global reach and publish instantly. Three, they’re not subject to rigorous writing, recording, and editing processes used by mainstream media outlets.

On the flip side, sure, a social post might alert a customer to a story that will shine a negative light on a brand. But that’s hoping your customers don’t consume news on digital channels, and they’re not curious about the next steps one of their favorite brands is taking – both of those assumptions would be a mistake. That’s not to mention Medium, which is the crisis-response tool of the moment, used by brands such as Amazon, Twitter, and even the White House to explain issues that require more than 140 characters.

Social media isn’t a cutting-edge tool; it’s as table stakes as having a subscription to the local newspaper once was. It’s time for brands to stop acting like it’ll give them germs. 

Frank Washkuch is news editor of PRWeek. He can be contacted at frank.washkuch@prweek.com.

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