If you live in Australia you no doubt have heard about the comments of radio announcer, Alan Jones over the weekend.  You may have also heard that the response of some of the radio programs advertisers could be costing the station more than $80,00 a day in lost advertising revenue.

But are you aware of the fall out for one particular advertiser, “Woolworths” due to actions of a staff member at the same meeting and their subsequent handling of the negative customer comments on social media?  I don’t want to get into (another) debate over whether Woolworths actions are ‘right or wrong’ but rather pose the question about “How should Woolworths be responding on social media?”.

The company response to the tirade of angry comments on their facebook page to date has been well…. no response.  Woolworths have not stopped comments on their page (see them in action here: ) but nor are they responding.  There has been a stock standard media release issued by the company that only seems to have fueled the messages.

But what should Woolies do?  If they stop comments then are they seen to be limiting free speech and expression of their customers opinions?  If they continue to allow comments but make no response is this doing them more harm than good?

General consensus amongst our social media contacts is that the worst possible response to negative comments that a company can make is to immediately remove all offending posts.  As Rachel Strella, in her article “Social Media & the Consumer: How to Handle Negative Feedback” over at stated, “The only thing worse than deleting comments would be to respond defensively and thus initiating a battle with the audience.  I highly recommend not deleting negative feedback unless it’s an extreme circumstance such as inappropriate language or lewd comments”.

Woolworths invites comments and participation on their Facebook page and, on their website, even encourages customers to connect on Facebook to “Tell us how can our people make your visit to Woolies better?”.

So while Woolworths has given their audience free reign to voice their opinion, and displeasure, all over their Facebook Page, by allowing a barrage of negative comments to be posted without responding, to my mind, they are not only allowing untold damage to their brand, but inflaming the situation.

So what should Woolworths do?

Really the question is what should Woolworths have ‘done’?  No business should even commence social media marketing without first having a strategy and policy in place with a clearly defined process to follow when negative feedback is received.  A plan for brand reputation and management must extend to social media and internet properties generally.  This is important not onlyto protect your business brand but from a legal liability point of view as well.  Check out this great guest post on The Creative Collective blog by Jamie White from Pod Legal on “Your Legal Obligations When it Comes to Facebook”.

In the aftermath of a public relations nightmare though, remaining silent can be a critical error in judgement.  Ms Strella sums it up this way, “Don’t ignore the feedback, either. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away any more than deleting it.” Instead Sharon recommends, as I do, that a business acknowledge the feedback in a way that either seeks to better understand the situation or simply as a way of being seen to care enough to respond, explaining “When done correctly, acknowledging negative feedback and responding appropriately is an opportunity to demonstrate excellent customer service. How a business handles negative feedback says volumes about the integrity of the business and how much the business values its customers.”

It may come as a surprise then that the majority of Businesses respond to negative comments on social media exactly the way Woolworths have on this occasion.  A recent study by Satmetrix®, highlights that the majority of organizations of all sizes across B2C and B2B are blind to the opportunities and threats of social media.

According to Richard Owen, CEO of Satmetrix, “Businesses recognize the need for a social media strategy, however many are challenged in putting an effective strategy in place. While 77 percent of consumers post about products, 67 percent of businesses have no means of measuring what is being said, and less than one in 20 have any insight into the sentiment of what is being said. This is both a huge threat and a massive lost opportunity. Not only are companies running the risk of losing customers by not addressing their issues shared online, but they are also walking past the opportunity to capitalize on positive comments made on the social web.”

And yes, even in this case, there are positive customer comments that are not being capitalised on.  In amongst the flood of negative posts about Woolworths perceived support of Alan Jones, there are a smattering of thank you posts from happy customers.  On one of these posts, thanking staff for helping a customer that was unwell, there have been 1358 ‘likes’.  Of the 69 comments (to date) some have been negative but when these referenced the ‘Jones Affair’, many page members asked that the topic remain on that of the original (positive) post.

Several of the comments were from Woolworths staff members that it appears are feeling somewhat helpless and without a voice.  There is a community of people waiting to support Woolworths, ready to post when there is something positive they can contribute to but not wanting to be drawn into the Alan Jones fallout posts that have taken over the page.

There’s a great post here by Mike McGrail on “How to Handle Negative feedback on Social Media“.  But, in this case specifically, what should Woolies do?  I will leave the advice to their lawyers now but, if they were to ask me, I’d advise them to start talking. By finding their voice in the face of negative feedback they may well empower their community to find theirs as well.  At the very least the community will know they have been heard and Woolworths will have exercised their right of reply.  In the end that’s what social media is really about – a two way flow of information and open expression of ideas and opinions.

At the moment this conversation is one sided due to Woolworths intentional lack of response. It pays to remember which part of your anatomy points to the sky when you bury your head in the sand.

Do you agree? Disagree? What should Woolworths do?  As always we invite comments, encourage sharing and often respond.