Activists on Social Media Create a New Challenge For Communicators

Late last year Kraft Foods said it would no longer use the Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 dyes in its Shapes line of macaroni and cheese starting in 2014, according to a recent article in The New York Times. Kraft made the decision after enduring criticism from an influential food blogger, Vani Hari, who questioned Kraft about the use of petroleum-based dyes in its mac and cheese. Kraft could not be reached for comment.

It’s a cautionary tale for communicators and PR managers who have to increasingly engage social-media savvy consumer activists. “Social media has lowered the bar for people to engage in consumer activism,” said Justin Lapatine, a partner in the public affairs division of Global Strategy Group. “Previously, you had to write a letter or stand in protest in front of a company’s headquarters. Today, you click on a button and an email is sent to the company; you even have form letters. It’s much easier to take action.”

Take, which enables anyone to start a petition and mobilize support to try and effect change. Topics run the gamut, including the rights of the disabled, the environment, food, health and technology.

Indeed, among other changes it has spawned, the Web has democratized consumer activism. All it takes is one person who feels passionately about what he or she thinks is harmful corporate behavior—and has a robust audience that can provide quick traction—in order for brands to change their business practices. But communicators need not look at consumer activists with a jaundiced eye.

“If PR people are smart consumer activists can be another form of market research,” Lapatine said. “It’s about understanding what customers care about, and it potentially provides an opportunity to gain advantage over competitors.”

He added: “You need to provide a careful analysis to find out if [changes proposed by consumer activists] are deeply held values among consumers and decide whether you need to address things correctively.”

Following criticism from an influential food blogger about its use of petroleum-based dyes in its macaroni and cheese, Kraft announced late last year that it would no longer use two types of dyes in its Shapes line, starting this year, per The New York Times.

Following criticism from an influential food blogger about its use of petroleum-based dyes in its macaroni and cheese, Kraft announced late last year that it would no longer use two types of dyes in its Shapes line, starting this year, per The New York Times.


Perhaps the worst thing PR pros can do when approaching consumer activists/advocates is to demonize them. Such a strategy is likely to backfire and paint the brand in a negative light (regardless of the veracity of the claims being made about your brand).

And when dealing with consumer activists communicators shouldn’t let emotion get the best of the situation. “Companies do better staying in the boundaries of facts and information,” Lapatine said.

Gene Grabowski, executive VP of LEVICK, had a few other recommendations on navigating the consumer advocacy/social-media terrain:


▶ When you see a potential crisis stemming from consumer advocates using social media channels, “don’t always try and strip it out,” but instead join in the conversation. Grabowski said. “Join as a participant, not as Moses coming down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments. When you dominate and try and control the conversation with consumer activists you play right into their hands.”

▶ Share information. Grabowski said it’s crucial that communicators share data or a “point of view” with consumer activists that might alter their opinion.

▶ Possess a genuine understanding that brands can no longer just “toss information over the castle wall to be accepted by consumers,” he added. “The walls have been breached by social and digital media.”


The combined force of consumer activism and social channels, while still evolving, is yet another reason for brands to double-down on listening to what people are saying online about their products and services.

“We’re in a world where things can change in a moment, where citizen activists can wield an effective megaphone,” said Brian Ellner, executive VP and head of the Public Affairs practice at Edelman. “Those companies that can establish relationships with online influencers are in a much stronger position.” PRN


Brian Ellner,; Gene Grabowski,; Justin Lapatine,

Your company’s Facebook page just got inundated with comments from organized activists. A satirical hashtag targeting your organization is trending on Twitter. The inboxes of your corporate executives are overflowing with form email complaints from protesters.

Now what?

Rapid Response:

If a spike in your online mentions is accompanied by plummeting sentiment, go into rapid response mode if:

• The protest is organized by an advocacy group with a large email supporter list.

• Sponsored posts and tweets are paid for by a well-funded activist.

• Organic social sharing is propelled by disturbing imagery, undercover “gotcha” video, biting humor, or a rallying campaign slogan.

• The pace of negative mentions continues to accelerate rapidly.

Moderator Guide:

Your organization will be represented online by tired, overwhelmed staffers replying individually to thousands of tweets, posts and emails. So, provide a Moderator Guide with PR-crafted responses to all predictable questions. Unanticipated questions should be forwarded to the PR team for an on-message response.

Additional Tips:

• Welcome constructive feedback. However, route these comments to dedicated customer-service areas, rather than allowing your primary social media presence to be overtaken. It’s okay to hide comments that are off-topic. It’s okay to ban users who are abusive.

• Reputation outreach. Use social-listening software to monitor and reply to unbalanced views in the comments section of online news articles and blogs.

• Don’t amplify the controversy. Respond contextually, only to audiences already exposed to the reputation hit. For instance, online advertising that conveys your side of the story can be targeted to appear adjacent only to news articles containing keywords relating to the issue.

ASGK PortraitsMichael Organ is managing director of ASGK Public Strategies. He can be reached at


Editor’s Note: Learn about the latest online media trends at PR News’ Digital PR Summit February 5 in San Francisco. To register, please go to

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