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Handling PR Responses in Social Media Forums

Submitted by on September 30, 2010 – 9:30 amNo Comment

Some PR blogs I read are worth reposting. This is one of them. It boldly demonstrates the shortcomings of trying to handle all PR issues, crisis, and management in public social media forums like Twitter. The PR lesson learned: be aware of the medium’s limitations and think before you reply.

Starbucks’ PR tweets stink

Posted by Paul Seaman under Media issues / Trust and reputations on 12 September 2010

I’ve just laughed out loud at Lucy Kellaway’s Weekend FT story about Twitter, and Starbucks’ allegedly smelly toilets, that’s now doing the rounds as Lavatorygate.

For those who missed it, here’s a recap. Armando Giovanni Iannucci, the political satirist, Twittered to his 80, 000 followers:

“Still surprised that, despite their market dominance, Starbucks haven’t eliminated the slight smell of lavatory you get as you enter.”

As Kellaway reports, within minutes, Darcy Willson-Rymer, the UK head of Starbucks, replied:

“Thanks for your feedback. Which store did you visit?”

Mr Iannucci confirmed that he was at the Warwick services. He added, however, that the horrid pong was reeking in several stores and the chemical waft hits you by the front door. Kellaway says that the managing director thanked him again and promised to investigate. The satirist then tweeted:

“Good news. Starbucks are now looking into their pervasive lavatory smell.”

Now people at the highest level across the world are talking about Lavatorygate at Starbucks!

This little example highlights how Twitter’s supposedly personal format is a public trap waiting to snare the unwary. According to Kellaway, Lavatorygate raises three more important questions:

“The first is: does the coffee chain really smell like a lavatory? If it does, the MD should not have been relying on this circuitous and random route to make the discovery. Surely his staff should have tipped him off long ago.

“The second question is about reputation. Does it matter that a satirist tells his 80,000 Twitter followers that he thinks Starbucks stinks? I doubt it. As far as I can tell none of them responded and I’d be amazed if even one person had coffee that morning at Caffè Nero instead.

“Still, even if Mr Iannucci’s remarks were potentially damaging, they raise a third question: what should Starbucks have done about it?”

The answer, of course, is nothing on Twitter, particularly as the comment was not even directed @Starbucks. Replying, as she says, was a waste of senior management time. So she Twittered Darcy Willson-Rymer and asked if he did his own Tweeting or whether somebody did it for him. He replied via a tweet:

“No, all replies and tweets are from me. I think it is important to listen to customers and learn from the mistakes we make so I try to respond to all.”

So she set a test and wrote:

“Starbucks is a riddle. The coffee is weak and pricey, the decor horrid and the place often grubby. So why do we go on going there?”

Twenty hours later, there was still no reply. She comments:

“Maybe it’s because Mr. Willson-Rymer doesn’t know the answer any more than I do. Or maybe because I used a Twitter account that only has 10 followers and so this disgusted, yet loyal, customer doesn’t count.”

She also followed up with other people who had complained about Starbucks on Twitter. She asked them if they’d received replies. They hadn’t. That’s the point about setting an expectation on Twitter. If Mr. Willson-Rymer is serious, then he’s no longer MD, but the full time manager of satirical trivia about Starbucks on Twitter. When he starts getting picky about which ones to respond to, he risks pissing off those whom he cold-shoulders.

But why do we use Starbucks? I think it’s mostly because PLUs do. Many a product works on this crowd-induced trend-setting basis, and it trumps various inadequacies or inconveniences. It certainly overcomes the problem of over-priced merchandise, even in recessions. It accounts for a lot of Apple’s success. In short, some trends are just not rational. They are a testament to great product roll out (execution) and, not least, great branding backed by great marketing that creates status-enhancing products and or different life-styles choices. For sure, neither company’s PR is exemplary, and neither are their products – see here for Apple and here for Starbucks