Social Media Groundswell Tipping Point and Nestle’

Nestle’ SA is suffering a groundswell of negative social media commentary that began March 17 when Greenpeace International released a report about Nestle’s purchase and use of palm oil. Greenpeace alleges the palm oil comes from an Indonesian company that cleared rain forests to build palm plantations.

The Twitterosphere has been abuzz about this story, and the Nestle’ Facebook fan page (with more than 96,000 fans) has thousands of negative hits from activists, environmentalists, Greenpeace, animal rights supporters, and the like.

In the March 29, 2010 Wall Street Journal, the backlash against the company is reported as global and devastating (if you’re Nestle). This situation, more than the Domino’s Pizza incident I watched unfold on Twitter last year, is global viral. It’s buoyed by the digitally savvy who’ve used social media effectively to push a viral message that Nestle is killing orangutans.

If you sat in the corporate communications department of Nestle, what would you recommend as public relations strategy? And, to those of you who do do crisis communications, is this considered a crisis, in your opinion?

  • Nestle is an iconic global brand targeting audiences across the spectrum of age groups who consume infant formula, cereal, pet food, bottled water, energy foods, cocoa, chocolates, and more. Millions of brand-loyal people touch Nestle products. Similar to Toyota, apology and/or clarifications about the company’s products and stance on the environment should be immediately shared. On the Nestle Web site, there is a statement about the palm oil situation (see above link).
  • Executives should avail themselves to the consumer public in a Web forum to field questions. Digg features such forums for high-level executives (the Toyota U.S. CEO was interviewed on Digg).
  • Groundswell is a fabulous read. Ms. Li and co-author Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research suggest “groundswell thinking is like any other complex skill — it takes knowledge, experience, and eventually, enlightenment to get there.” In an early chapter of the book on strategies for tapping the groundswell, the authors offer “five strategies companies can pursue in the groundswell, and these include listening, talking, energizing, supporting, embracing.” (These are exactly what Nestle’ needs to be doing.)
  • I asked my Chicago colleague Christine Esposito of Terracom Public Relations, a 20-year-old environmental public relations firm, to weigh in on this discussion. I wanted Christine’s take on Greenpeace and what it might do (besides rejoice at the success of its global viral campaign).
  • Christine suggested Greenpeace could benefit its edgy activist image by recruiting more mainstream NGOs that are similarly concerned about palm oil production. They should sit together at the boardroom table with Nestle to spell out the allegations, listen to how the corporation responds, and hammer out a resolution. (Hmm, this sounds like mediation, and perhaps it’s very similar.)
  • Another thought is immediate elevation by Nestle of its cause-related marketing efforts. Whatever programs Nestle’ corporate communications has had in place, boost them up to engage with environmentalists and show the company does care about Indonesia’s rain forests, among other protected habitats and animals.
  • To round out its team of experts, Nestle’ should hire Paul Rand and his team at Chicago’s hot word-of-mouth marketing agency Zocalo Group. Paul is president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, and he is a high-level influencer in brand evangelism. (I worked with and for Paul in my Chicago agency days and respect his intelligence and ability to deliver in such situations.)

Nestle did not dally in its response to this situation. Regardless, it’s difficult to control the Tipping Point. As a teachable moment, this case study is one for the books, and it’s still unfolding. Once the first domino was tickled, the rest just fell into place.

What strategies would you offer Nestle and/or Greenpeace International to push this situation to resolution and repair a damaged brand?