This is a cautionary tale that goes to the heart of the decision that in-house communicators make frequently - whether or not to actively engage online.
The Guardian invited Neal's Yard Remedies to be the focus of one of its regular 'You Ask They Answer' slots in May. It agreed and sat back to wait for the comments to flow in. But when many bloggers became highly critical of the company's homeopathic remedies and demanded proof of their efficacy, the company froze and ultimately refused to make any response.
After a day, 214 comments, and repeated requests for Neal's Yard to respond, the Guardian finally closed the section, with debate then continuing on Twitter. Somewhat inevitably, the company's failure to respond had become the story.
In the six months since, Neal's Yard has refused to make any comments on the incident. But it has now issued this statement to PRWeek, insisting that it felt misled by the intended scope of the Guardian article;
'Following an approach from The Guardian, we agreed in good faith to take part in a discussion about natural and organic skincare. When a small but vocal lobby then chose to use this as an opportunity to debate homeopathy, we were no longer prepared to participate. We've seen first hand how extremely volatile the online dimension is and how much it differs from conventional media'.
Is it realistic to expect to be able to put boundaries around online discussion? Should Neal's Yard have never taken part in the first place? We asked our essay writers for their opinion on how the company might have handled proceedings differently....
Neal's Yard's first mistake was opening up to the Guardian's "You ask, they answer" column if they didn't have the willingness and capability to respond to the varied questions and comments about individual products. It's clear that many of the participants are anti-homeopathy and there's nothing Neal's Yard can do to convince these people otherwise. In this situation, it should focus on how it is perceived by its customer base and make greater use of its own site to enable customers to pose questions.
I would have advised them to prepare for Trolls (before the event). There are always trolls lurking in any online community, and the best way to deal with them is to listen and reply (not ignore and hide).
We would have advised to take the conversation off the Guardian site by creating a platform to discuss and address the issue. This would allow Neal's Yard the ability to provide proper information and sources of reference. They could invite partners, experts and even the opposition to participate in an online symposium in an environment they create. We would also suggest partnering with homeopathic organizations to build a community and offer a unified voice on the issue.
The simple answer is to get back to the thread quicker and more decisively so the communities concerns are addressed, and the conversation can be redirected to a more positive end-point. I would have looked at the business reasons for completing an activity such as this and advised the team at Neal's Yard of additional options. I'm not sure this was the right forum for them to engage and they should have better considered the risks due to the controversial nature of this subject. If I were looking after this project I would have completed a full risk-assessment for Neil's Yard prior to running the piece, and then prepped reactive messaging for all eventualities so they could have responded quickly.
If there is one thing worse than refusing to respond to lots of comments, it is saying you will respond - and then refusing to do so. So having made the commitment to The Guardian to respond, Neal's Yard should have done so. After all, if they had - would we still be talking about them now?
Avoiding the ‘You Ask' questions was a major PR own goal. Neal's Yard should have posted a note to say how important the opinions were to them and that due to the amount of submissions and their nature, they would seek views of the appropriate individuals in the business and respond within a stated period of time. I would have advised their chairman, Peter Kindersley, to respond with personal pre-recorded video on the Guardian's site. Seeing the ‘whites of the eyes' from the top of the organisation shows that Neal's Yard take seriously the allegations made and will do everything they can to reassure anyone who has concerns about their business practices. This medium must be taken as seriously as others. As well as the journalists involved, those contributing will also blog and tweet about the issue which will then escalate and could massively impact on the brand's standing.
This is a classic example of a lack of preparation. Before entering into such an open discussion I would've advised the brand to review their customer complaints and be prepared to receive probing questions, it's very easy to accept praise, less so to deal with complaints. Ideally, they would've been prepared to answer any and all questions in the open forum the Guardian provided them. However, as it's clear they weren't prepared, and from the defensive answers they did give lacking the necessary skill-set to deal with social media comms, I would've advised them to issue a statement addressing all issues collectively, inviting further comment and discussion but taking it all offline. I would then advise them to deal with each enquiry individually and as quickly as possible in accordance with their complaints procedure.
Our advice would have been simple: don't do it until you are better prepared to do so. Neal's Yard placed itself in a situation where it was open to both positive and negative criticism - something which the team didn't realise. By refusing to answer the questions, it's damaged the company's reputation.
If Neal's Yard had undertaken an extensive social media audit prior to putting themselves forward, the team would have realised that they would be facing a potential battle and had sufficient time to create responses and messaging to address issues.
Using our in house social media monitoring tool we ran an audit of Neal's Yard across all social media platforms and for the last 12 months. The results are interesting. There's clear negative online media sentiment around a story relating to their malaria remedy, which hit the media more than 12 months ago and its still prevalent amongst online audiences. Whilst recent conversations relating to the brand are positive, historically the brand has not fared well. There is generally very neutral sentiment towards the entire market for homeopathic remedies and therefore they could not expect to be overwhelmed with positive comments.
Secondly, if they had researched their media in more detail they would see that The Guardian was not necessarily the right media for them to step forward and open the brand to questioning from the general public. The Guardian has historically, through one of its writers Dr Ben Goldacre, been quite anti homeopathic remedies. The Guardian also has a very large international audience - two thirds of its internet traffic comes from outside of the UK. Therefore the perception most people have of the traditional Guardian reader does not apply to the Guardian website.
We're not suggesting that Neal's Yard never interact within the social media space, in would be damaging to do so. Our recommendation is spend time understand how your brand is perceived and how its online perception has evolved over time. As a result, should you face negative commentary and concerns you will be better prepared.
There is no option but to respond. They are fair questions that would have been addressed before, so bite the bullet and get on the front foot. Firstly, group the questions into the top 5 subject areas and respond to each, focussing on dismantling the homeopathy vs science argument. Encourage a sense of rational thought in the debate by seeking independent online proof points to support the argument in favour of homeopathy (e.g. prominent bloggers, communities and those without a vested interest). Express a NY POV in a non-commercial way by underlining the stringent R&D each product goes through before reaching the market. Acknowledge that homeopathy is discussed with a lack of depth and embrace the opportunity to become a trusted advisor and thought leader in the space.
Underline you commitment to transparency, authenticity and credibility by inviting those that have participated in the Guardian discussion to face to face meetings in a store and distil and publish the central themes of these discussions through your social media platforms. Diffuse confrontation by embracing the argument and allow the consumer to decide for themselves.
Don't start something that you can't finish. The environment was clearly hostile, responding to individual questions would have been like playing an unwinnable version of whack-a-mole. Ideally, Neal's Yard should have responded on home turf. Had they had a corporate blog that would have been a great environment. It's probably worth putting a human face on things these days, too. A nice unscripted piece-to-camera posted on YouTube works wonders.
Most companies that are well-advised get their defence in first. I admire the way Tesco deals with potential issues. Its corporate site deals with criticism before it can be made openly and online. It is very hard to criticise a company when the online community already has access to information that counters this.
There is no place to hide online and in this situation Neal's Yard needed to fully answer, honestly, all that was being asked. Done in the right way they could have turned these bloggers into advocates.
Staying quiet and hoping "it will go away" is not an option in cyberspace - in fact it can be massively damaging, as seen in the recent Spinvox/BBC stand-off.
After agreeing to take part in a potentially volatile forum, Neal's Yard should have been monitoring responses in real-time. It should have quickly posted a response saying that it was looking into the various complaints and allegations left by contributors, that it took feedback seriously and would post a follow-up response at a certain time. This would have taken the initial sting out of the situation and given Neal's Yard some breathing space to assess next moves. It may have also limited the increasingly vitriolic follow-up responses from contributors when they realised that Neal's Yard was staying quiet. When the online world smells blood, it acts like a pack of wolves.
Neal's Yard should have then posted "on-message" responses to dilute the situation again mentioned that it valued feedback and was passionate about keeping its customers fully informed. If any allegations were seen to be true, Neal's Yard should have admitted any mistakes and assured the blog's readers that it would make a follow up statement within a specified period of time.
It's not clear if this was a proactive or reactive decision from Neal's Yard, but if proactive, I think it was a bad call. While digital platforms can provide a great opportunity to interact and to listen, you still have to be selective. Guardian ‘forums' are populated by a certain vocal group, and a virtual ear bashing was inevitable.
If reactive, Neal's Yard needed to remember the basics of good issues management: be open, be honest, and be fast. Every product claim for every brand needs to be defended and backed up. Having been asked direct questions, they needed to give direct answers and turn this into an opportunity to give their views.
It's baffling why they didn't just follow through on their original deal with The Guardian. Yes, you need a thick skin to properly engage with your customers - because yes, they may ask difficult questions. But by answering those questions honestly, quickly and in a human way (‘be nice') you have the best opportunity to get your point across and retain the respect of the neutral reader. So in summary, I would have recommended that they adopt the classic issue management mantra: ‘tell the truth, tell it quickly and tell it yourself'.