The Kerala-based condiments brand Eastern was caught in a PR mess recently. It seems a little known newspaper from Kerala (called Nagaram – I haven’t heard about this paper ever, despite being in PR for a long time) alleged that district food inspectors raided Eastern’s premises after getting a tip that an adulterant named Sudan Dye was being added to Eastern’s chilli powder. The news also alleged that 1,200 kilograms of adulterated chilli powder was seized from Eastern’s factories. The news also reached select English media – again, lesser-known or unknown – like this one.

I am given to understand from certain sources that this PR mess was thrust upon Eastern for not complying with the wishes of a senior person from the Kerala spices board. While I’m not going to dig into the truth or the lack of it behind that insider explanation, I’d love to consider how a brand/company would respond to such an allegation…particularly if it is false.

Eastern, on its part, seems to have done the usual – release a print ad denying the news of raid as complete fabrication.

But, Eastern has also done something interesting beyond media-centered efforts. They have started their Facebook page and Twitter profile in the wake of this PR crisis. Imagine – brands start owned social media properties for so many other reasons – brand evangelism, build buzz for a new TVC, launch of a new variant and so on. And here’s a brand that starts a Facebook page and Twitter profile to specifically counter the vicious campaign around it!

What could have triggered Eastern to start the Facebook page and Twitter profile (on December 26, 2011, almost as soon as the crisis hit the world) is the fact that the source news (alleging raids and adulteration) spread on Facebook and Twitter quite a bit. And, considering the fact that Eastern’s lucrative markets include UK and the US, besides Middle East, it makes logical sense to use social media to counter something that is also spreading on social media, across borders.

Besides posting a scanned version of the denial, Eastern is also seen responding to many individual comments on its Facebook page and via Twitter. This is a good enough lesson for PR practitioners to extend their efforts in crisis communications using owned media properties online. It is one thing to start engaging with mainstream media to deny false allegations, but to note that the spread is also online and to plan an online outreach is solid, proactive thinking. This is particularly useful given Eastern’s markets outside India, where the news of the allegations could have spread primarily through online channels.

What would be interesting, however, is to see how Eastern handles these pages on Twitter and Facebook over a longer period of time. Will they lose interest in managing it after this particular crisis is over? Or, will they plan an interesting content calendar around things that Eastern’s users may find interesting?

One of the most obvious ways that they can do this is to go beyond Eastern-centric content and go into areas that Eastern enables for its customers – food recipes. This is a tried and tested content strategy anyway, with the best Indian example being Ching’s Secret. There are so many points around recipes that Eastern can explore and retain the fans it has accumulated during this trying period and make them even more loyal to its range of products. But, all this, if only they think beyond Eastern, the brand and stop treating the Facebook and Twitter pages as a TV channel.