Back in 2015, Nestle’s Maggi faced online what we can, in hindsight, call the first big social media storm of India. Armed with the news that Maggi contained MSG, assorted people took to social media to question a brand that they all loved for decades.
What did Maggi do? I had cataloged that experience here, but here’s the tl;dr version:
1. They had a 2-line response that was sent as a reply to anyone and everyone who mentioned ‘Maggi’ as a keyword.
2. Then, they added an image of a 4-line statement along with the 2-line statement as a reply to anyone and everyone.
3. Then, they added a URL as a reply to everyone; this took people to a PDF that was just a white page with no header, footer, name, signature and 4 paragraphs of text.
These were plastered on everyone’s question about Maggi, and even to mere mentions of Maggi when they weren’t even talking about the actual issue. For instance:
All this was back in 2015. We are in 2021, now. You’d expect that brands, big and small, have had 6 years to spruce up their social media-led crisis strategy and playbook given how often it happens nowadays.
Yet, Cadbury India/Mondelez India seems to be bungling it embarrassingly bad despite having the best PR, communications, and legal teams at its disposal.
The short version of what the crisis is about: someone found a page on Cadbury Australia’s website where it mentions that products from Cadbury’s range that list gelatin as an ingredient, the gelatine they use is halal certified and derived from beef.
Cadbury’s India page does not mention anything to do with halal, gelatin, or beef.
By the way, Cadbury has been frequently in social media storms over ‘halal’.
The Australian page screenshot was used by tons of people to ask if Cadbury India also contained gelatin in some products and if so, does it make the Indian products also contain beef (indirectly). The larger question being posed is this: Is Cadbury India’s products fully ‘vegetarian’?
What did Cadbury India do?
1. They started responding to anyone who asked them a question with a 2-tweet reply (1/n and 2/n).
2. Then they started responding to people with a 3-tweet reply.
3. Then, they started responding to people with an image that contained the same text.
This is so alarmingly similar to Maggi’s response strategy that I wonder if the same PR agency is behind both!
Like I had added context to what was wrong with the content of Maggi’s mass response, let me take a closer look at Cadbury’s statement (the only one they have, so far).
Here is Cadbury’s sole stock statement:
Hi, the screenshot shared in the Tweet is not related to Mondelez products manufactured in India. All the products manufactured and sold in India are 100% vegetarian. The green dot on the wrapper signifies that. As you can well imagine, negative posts like these, damages consumer confidence in our well-respected and loved brands. We request our consumers to please verify facts related to our products before sharing them further. Hope we have clarified. For any further queries, please write to us at Suggestions@mdlzindia.com. We look forward to your continued patronage.
1. The first 3 lines are decent enough, but what is the point of the rest? People do not care about ‘consumer confidence’, brands do. ‘well-respected and loved brands’? That’s what brands what to believe in, while people don’t think on those lines as much as what brands want them to. And a request to ‘verify facts’? Cadbury India is getting these questions BECAUSE people have already overlooked obvious facts!
2. The allegation, framed as a question, is very clear: Are you using beef through gelatin in Indian products? Hence, are you vegetarian?
This needs a clear and categorical response that cannot be misconstrued or does not evoke further lines of cross-questioning.
Step 1: Isolate the problem – First, at a website level, and only then at a product level. Mention clearly that the screenshot is from Cadbury’s Australia website and that the India website does not contain this page at all.
Step 2: Offer a clear, credible, and believable confirmation that Cadbury’s India products are 100% vegetarian. What Cadbury now has is clear enough, but is it credible and believable? Hardly. It’s just a statement without any name or seal behind it shared by a non-human brand handle. Get a senior enough person to air the statement – make sure that person is searchable on LinkedIn (meaning: she/he is real). If the person is someone with decision-making power about the operations (and not just ‘Legal head’), the better for credibility.
Step 3: Add relevant context on the kind of Government bodies and institutions that have certified Cadbury India’s products. This adds weight to Cadbury’s claims which right now seems anonymous.
3. Do not overstep the ask with any other information about loved brands, verifying facts, etc. The ‘love’ is usually fleeting and the less said about fact-checking on social media the better. Your only job is to offer irrefutable evidence about one thing and one thing only.
This is ‘what’. Next, the ‘how’.
Like Maggi, Cadbury has been responding to anyone and everyone. That too, late.
The first big, massively viral tweet I see is this.
Posted on July 17th, at 12:35 pm. The response by Cadbury? July 18th, 12:46 pm! 24 hours later! By which time more than adequate people have seen only one side (the query/allegation) and nothing from the brand. That is the golden period of a social media crisis where it festers depending on the social clout of the person.
In this case, the person has more than 2 million followers!
I presume Cadbury’s delay was because it had to first draft a statement, send it to legal to get it ‘vetted’, and then send it to the social media team to post it. That’s 3 departments coordinating over a crisis. Result? A 24-hour delay. The 24-hour delay is perfectly acceptable in a pre-internet crisis because everything worked on a 24-hour media news cycle largely dictated by print media. But, not on social media where the news-cycle runs by the minute.
Cadbury, being a very large international brand, and one that has so frequently courted trouble over ‘beef’, ‘halal’, ‘pork’, among other things, should have had a red alert in its social media monitoring dashboard if it had one. A 2-million+ follower Twitter user asking a question about ‘halal’ and ‘beef’ should initiate a category-5 warning all through the company.
But going by the 24-hour delay and the badly drafted response, that does not seem to be the case.
The normal course of action should be this:
1. A red-alert through the company initiates a sub-group of people chosen from,
a. senior management
b. corporate communications
d. PR agency
e. social media/digital media
2. They deliberate on a course of action within the next 30-45 minutes.
3. Corporate communications is best placed to frame a response. They also need to cross-question the statement from all directions if it solves a purpose unambiguously: to not evoke further questions.
Like they do with every media announcement, the team also needs to frame follow-up questions that may come and have answers ready for all of them. This is corporate communications 101 and is the standard protocol for every media interaction for spokespeople. These follow-up questions are not rocket science – any decent corporate communications professional with enough experience and any decent PR agency would be able to come up with them. The more caustic, acerbic, abrasive, and combative they are, the better for crisis management planning.
The bigger task is in framing responses to those questions. For instance, one persistent follow-up question in this crisis seems to be, “I hear you, Cadbury India. So are you saying that you are offering beef-made chocolates to Hindus in Australia?”, where religion and nationality are mixed. It is not an impossible question to answer but it also requires enormous tact in terms of framing.
4. It is then vetted by legal and sent to the team responsible for posting online within the next hour. That social media front-end team also needs to be guided by the corporate communications team on what the objective is and how the statement and multiple answers to potential follow-up questions should be used and handled. It would also help if the social media team has been responding with their names/signatures at the end of each message – this humanizes the response and reduces the direct animosity a non-human brand handle evokes.
Most telecom and financial brands follow this practice (as also most service brands). Cadbury’s doesn’t seem to be using this model, but it is never too late to start.
5. The first response is ideally posted within 1-2 hours of the red-alert query/allegation.
6. The social media team needs to pick their battles instead of responding to everyone with a stock statement. Prioritize those with larger social clout using a decent social media monitoring tool. Add personal markers (first name) while responding. Prioritize those handles that you can verify/identify as real people, and not those that have pseudonyms and lack any markers that can connect them to an individual (they prefer hiding in the shadows and could be more vituperative without any repercussions on their real-life).
The idea is not to respond to the most number of people who are tagging you or asking you questions. The idea is to respond to an adequate number of people where the impact could be maximum. And respond to each in this set with a personal tone.
And most importantly, STAY on the conversation to see who else is asking what kind of question as a follow-up. React and enter conversations in real-time.
7. Cadbury’s critical mistake is to use a mainstream media-centric PR strategy for social media.
During a crisis in the pre-social media days, media professionals seek an official response from the company and the company offers a single, standard statement as the response. That’s exactly what Cadbury is doing here.
But social media queries come in real-time, unlike the coordinated-by-news-cycle mainstream media queries. The responses are also seen in real-time. So, instead of thinking of crisis management as a one-time, planned exercise, think of it as a live beast that is continuing to devour your brand in real-time for 2-3 days. Or, think of it as the post-press conference Q&A, but one that stretched to 2-3 days!
Social media crises also dissipate faster than ones perpetuated by mainstream media. But that doesn’t mean they can be taken lightly. The faster a brand reacts, with sense and irrefutable logic, the earlier it can dissipate.
In terms of the kind of people needed to handle such a crisis, many brands make the mistake of assuming that social media skills are enough. It clearly is not.
Social media crises are also reputational crises. It requires experienced PR professionals who can quickly understand the contours of a crisis in terms of what problems are cited and how they can be responded to with the help of the brand’s team. Framing and wording of the response and replies are extremely important.
After getting the content right, the brands need a solid social media team that knows how to prioritize responses instead of a spray-and-pray approach. This needs people who spend time on social media platforms and understand how conversations work on a many-to-many channel.
Most importantly, it needs people who understand that a conversation on social media is not merely between a person and a brand, but between a person, a brand, and the 3rd entity: the whole world. The brand is responding to one person, and to the whole world at the same time.
The response teams also need to be educated and empowered to articulate responses with minor differences to make the conversation seem real and genuine instead of one stock statement that makes the company seem like a robot. The idea is simple: talk like a human, and be actually human in your conversations.