Social media has ways of making big businesses talk

…even when they don’t want to.

Summary

Big gym firm forced to climb down after social media fire storm – but not until the damage was already done.

It all started off with Lisa Bachelor’s article on LA Fitness & unwanted gym contracts. A few days later, the case went viral on Twitter, forcing the firm to make a rapid climb-down. Was it Twitter that won it or was it The Guardian that won it? The Media Blog says it was somewhere between the two.

Just as I have argued that Whitehall needs to adapt to social media world, so to do firms. This is even more the case where such a firm is providing an extended service over a long period of time, as opposed to a discrete/one off purchase.

Social media appears to be treated as something that is ‘bolted on’ to a communications operation. Possibly something that can be outsourced to a professional public relations firm or, where that’s not affordable something that can be given to the young work-experience chap or the graduate on that long-term unpaid internship. The fact that no one person is in control of what ‘social media world’ does makes it exciting for the likes of general social media users, and makes it absolutely petrifying for those charged with ‘managing’ brands. What do you do when your brand is trending for all of the wrong reasons?

For me, firms should be treating their social media accounts as a minimum as an online customer service desk…but one where the whole world can see what’s going on. Have you ever been behind someone at a customer service desk where someone is really going off on one at some unfortunate teenage college student who’s trying to help make ends meet? Imagine that, but with thousands of people watching on as if it were a spectator sport – where, as Jonathan Hemus says, the spectators influence the game.

The big challenge for firms is their structures of decision-making – which (especially for larger firms) are hierarchical in their nature due to the need for accountability. These structures however, build in delays to decision-making and responses in a world where firestorms can occur instantaneously and seemingly at random. As a result, larger firms end up looking like blundering behemoths being stung by a swarm of bees that they can do nothing to fight off.

LA Fitness now face a number of problems. The first is the loss of revenue from the number of people who have confirmed that they will be terminating or not renewing their contracts with the firm following this story. Given the amount of money they were originally chasing the customer concerned for, this in itself is a disaster. Secondly, their practices are now under the spotlight of social media. Someone out there plus three will inevitably be keeping a close watch on LA Fitness to see if their policies on enforcement of contracts will now change. This will inevitably have an impact on their bottom line, but the failure to make any changes could lead to another media firestorm if people feel that the firm only backed down in that one case (but not others) because of media and newspaper coverage. Finally, the brand has been dragged through the mud over this. This will inevitably mean executives in the firm will want some sort of remedial action to deal with this. This costs money – at a time when people are looking to save as much money as they can in these tough economic times. There’s money to be saved too.

It wasn’t just the climbdown by LAFitness that struck me, it was the manner in which it was done that spoke volumes. First they put out a single response to a single individual who tweeted to their LAFitnessTips account. It was along the lines of ‘We don’t comment on individual cases’ – which is a standard line both in government and the corporate sector. The problem was that social media world felt differently, and responded in unison along the lines of “We have ways of making you talk! (Mr Bond)”.

Later on that evening, they deleted that ‘line to take’ as it was clearly the proverbial red rag to a raging bull. They then sent out NINE tweets explaining their position all at once.  This paints a picture of decision-makers panicking and not having a clue about the etiquette of social media. Twitter is not the place to be making long statements like that. At the very least they should have published a full and considered statement on their website and then tweeted the hyperlink to it. In said statement content-wise what people would probably be looking for is an apology for the firms conduct and a commitment to start a review of its policies – and to update everyone on what changes will be made once the review is complete.

For me, social media cannot be treated as a ‘bit part’ of a communications department. It has to be integral to the operation of the organisation – if only because of the insights you can gain from feedback that comes from the front line. Elizabeth Linder of Facebook said at the Institute for Government that her firm used such feedback (and users’ habits) to improve the functionality of Facebook. (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you agree with her or not). The point is that organisations can take the viewpoint that the customer/citizen is wrong and adopt a ‘bunker’ mentality to fight off all criticisms come-what-may, or they can take on board what is being said and use it to improve both what they offer and how they function.

Until then, I imagine there will be a few more social media firestorms coming to a large firm near you.

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One Response to Social media has ways of making big businesses talk

  1. Pingback: “If you don’t like what we do, don’t buy our products!” | A dragon's best friend

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