Greenpeace’s Social Media Win Has Losers


If you were paying attention to social and traditional media, you will recall the Greenpeace/Nestle global crisis communications situation primarily in March and April this year. I wrote about it here; it was a fascinating study in public relations. (I would’ve liked to have been teaching a PR class when this was unfolding.)   

The issue became quite ugly quite fast when Greenpeace launched a crusade with a viral video accusing Nestle of killing orangutans in the rainforest due to its purchase of palm oil from a company in Indonesia that harvested palm oil from the rainforest and sold it to the likes of Nestle.

Nestle went on the defensive on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media hot spots and garnered thousands of hits to its page. Social media erupted against Nestle, as well, and Greenpeace watched their fireworks for weeks. In spite of Greenpeace’s social media win, the losers are still trying to uncover.

The accused Indonesian company from which Nestle and Unilever had been purchasing palm oil, PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources & Technology (SMART), ceased doing business with the two global giants as a result of the allegations. Unilever had been purchasing 47,000 tons of palm oil from SMART annually.

On August 11, 2010, this headline in the Wall Street Journal grabbed my attention, “Palm Oil Firm Rebuts Greenpeace Claim.” STAR paid to conduct a third-party audit of its estates to determine research “shows the company wasn’t responsible for cutting down forest and destroying orangutan habitat for palm cultivation.”

While I can’t corroborate the research report (Greenpeace is rebutting it), I can give you the skinny:


The public relations and social media strategy behind the Greenpeace maneuvers are amazing; and, they’ve been doing this for years.  These campaigns are the most well-orchestrated on a global scale; why? Because we live in an interconnected world where videos go viral within hours, and instantaneous, real- time, in-bound communication on social networks heightens the crisis to unmanageable proportion.

The tools are available to all the players except STAR. I have not done my research on this company’s mission, values or business philosophy (here’s a link to with some info). What I can assume is that people in Indonesia lost money and jobs because of this campaign and monkeys perhaps lost homes, too. World-wide, real-time refute via social media of the allegations by STAR were not possible, but the Wall Street Journal provided the company a solid foundation for which to air its side of the story.

As I weave this story again, I’m drawing your focus to the profound impact social media has all companies. Size Doesn’t Matter!! Word-of-mouth marketing is an amazing channel. If you watched the man in the video biting off the finger of an orangutan when he opened a Kit Kat, it’s highly likely you’ll never eat another (uh, chocolate bar).

BP, PR and The Fall

It’s not too often public relations is visibly on the frontlines of a national crisis. When the client, BP in this case, is less than transparent and is deep into a situation (since April 10, 2010) with no immediate resolution and none foreseen until perhaps August, it is imperative public relations does everything possible to position a solution as genuine, train the spokespeople to be genuine,  and execute action-oriented and timely response.

In the June 7, 2010 Advertising Age, the story “Brunswick put to ultimate test as BP grows increasingly toxic,” references a global public relations firm that is most comfy as a financial communications agency and not an environmental- disaster crisis-communications shop.

Reporter Michael Bush references the good relationship with an early start in London 23 years ago between Brunswick and BP while suggesting the Washington D.C. office of the former is ill equipped to manage the crisis and perhaps its New York office would fare slightly better.

It was only a matter of time before the finger pointing began to swing in PR’s direction.

The work we public relations practitioners do on behalf of clients indeed includes counsel for behavior on the frontlines of a crisis. (Not sure why BP President Tony Hayward forgot his media training half of the time; was it due to pure exhaustion?)

No PR firm the size of Brunswick with HQ in London should manage a crisis of this proportion independently, regardless of the D.C. politicos on staff from the U.S. Treasury and White House who have foreign policy expertise.

This situation is similar to what happens to a past president of the United States. With all the earned expertise, he is relegated to the back burner to build a presidential library and author books rather than aid and abet the new admnistration. There are public relations agencies galore on the global scale with crisis communications expertise who can help the current situation with a fresh approach.

I am not one of these agencies nor am I a crisis communications expert who would even consider tackling a situation of this magnitude. (Levick Strategic Communications is doing a bang-up job with its own PR about this debacle; I’m seeing the firm quoted in a number of stories proffering counsel to BP on how it ought to manage this crisis.)

You can bet, however, that were I in the shoes of a Brunswick and internal BP corporate communications department, I’d scramble to invite illustrious public relations leaders to the boardroom to propose high-level solutions to this never-ending crisis.

It’s ludicrous local public relations firms in Texas at command central and the Gulf states have not been invited to the table to strategize strictly about regional people affected by this calamity who have lost their generations-old livelihood. How do you elect politicians? Karl Rove knows. You erupt the grassroots machine, one vote at a time.

Now that the pendulum has swung into anti-BP mode and it’s sticking, public relations is going to suffer trying to make change in this ever non-transparent debacle.

 For what it’s worth, BP and Brunswick, at this late date:

  • Call in the PR experts for some fresh ideas and begin to repair the damage that will take 10 times as long because your public face has been under water.
  • Invite regional PR expertise to the table to develop a Gulf States public relations campaign directed at the locals who live day to day off the sea for food and tourism.
  • Swallow your pride, cough up the dough, and tap the global PR community who work with oil companies on a daily basis. In fact, contact the Exxon-Valdez PR team for counsel on this situation. They’re still out there waiting, I’m sure.

And, if you’ve already done all this and I just don’t know about it, well, forgive me. Glad to hear it.

Media Relations and P&G’s What-If Plan

Today’s post is a compendium of news about Fortune 100 crises. If you’ve watched this space, you’ll recognize these names – Nestle, BP, and Proctor & Gamble. Don’t know the crisis each is managing? Then perhaps you’ve not been consuming social and traditional media, for these corporations are in the news several times a day of late due to rain forests, oil and diapers.

To bring you up to speed, here’s the Soulati-‘TUDE! Nestle post. This week, my “Got a What If Plan?” oriented to the oil debacle paved the way for the next day’s post on diapers, rash and Procter & Gamble.

So great to see a sequential flow, and the only reason I re-introduced this content here is as a foreword to this article in Advertising Age “Inside P&G’s PR playbook: How Pampers Battled Diaper Debacle” about a behind-the-scenes look at the public relations machine for Proctor & Gamble. The internal team and its agency kicked into high gear at the onset of mommy complaints that the new Pampers Dry Max caused diaper rash and “chemical burns” on babies’ behinds.

For anyone in corporate or agency public relations, I strongly encourage you read this piece. It is a fascinating unfolding of a public relations machine in synch with product marketing, corporate strategy, and internal response to a brewing external crisis.

The story was written by Jack Neff after Advertising Age was granted an insider view of the marketing public relations team in action. He followed them for half a day to watch strategy and execution. I’ve not seen a story of this nature delivered smack in the middle of a crisis. If I were a stakeholder, you can bet my concerns would be alleviated after reading this piece.

In companies the world over, there is crisis. Social media has elevated these issues beyond comprehension and presented them to the consuming public on a silver platter. This trifecta is a textbook case for students, and I hope academicians and volunteer public relations professors are watching these three situations closely. There’s no better way to teach than by real-world example, and none of us are too old to keep learning.

Only one word of counsel for today:

It’s more critical than ever to shore up external messaging. When social media comes calling, one word gone awry can upset the entire apple cart.

Got a What-If Plan?

As I read and shake my head, sigh and get absolutely frustrated about the oil spill calamity/crisis/disaster, I know the entire world feels as I do.

Heck, this crosses party lines, and if there is a defense team, they better have thick skin when asking for reduced culpability. The cascading effects of this event will affect marine life and industry for decades.

I digress.

More the shock to me is the alleged lack of disaster planning by all the oceanic companies playing in the deep sea. Just prior to the rig explosion, folks tussled about the final step; people disagreed about the what if. Admittedly, it’s been said BP was not readily prepared with a crisis plan in the event of the what if.

I do not allow the what-if game in my house. Children are notorious for, “Mom, what if…” In this case, that’s prescience.

Every company needs a what-if plan. In public relations we call it a crisis plan. In theory, crisis plans sit on a shelf awaiting a dust-off day. Crisis plans are meant to be revisited annually; updated to flow in sequence and aligned with changes in the life stream of a company.

Got a what-if plan?

Better get one…just in case.

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?