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Sunday, 8 January 2012

Social media have companies quaking


ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Public outrage blazing across the social media terrain scorched Wegmans Food Markets on Wednesday, pushing the company to reinstate a controversial spokesman it had publicly jettisoned just a day earlier.
But Wegmans, which backtracked on the cancellation of commercials featuring actor Alec Baldwin, isn't the only one to feel the wrath of the technologically adept consumer:
» Last week, Verizon Wireless quickly reversed a decision to charge a "convenience fee" for credit- and debit-card bill paying when it was swamped with criticism and complaints on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites.
» In November, Bank of America, bending to a storm of outrage arising from its decision to charge a debit-card usage fee, changed its corporate mind and dropped the charge.
» In recent months, furious online opposition to machinations at Netflix forced not only a reversal, but an apology.
» Hewlett-Packard
dropped its decision to spin off its personal computer division amid Internet-fueled complaints.
Companies saying "oops" in the face of perturbed consumers goes back years. A famous case history is that of Coca-Cola Co., which in 1985 launched and then un-launched New Coke after people said they wanted the old beverage back.
But the company needed three months to comply. Verizon and Wegmans took one day to respond to public opposition.
"They used to say the switchboard was lighting up when people complained about things like this," said Robert Thompson, media professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "But sometimes people didn't get through on the switchboard. Now they are, using social media."
Wegmans, responding to "hundreds and hundreds" of complaints, Wednesday said it would resume the Baldwin ads that it pulled in December but didn't discuss until Tuesday.
The company had discontinued the final week of a three-week run of holiday spots featuring the 53-year-old actor after he was thrown off an American Airlines flight for belligerently refusing to turn off his mobile device, the airline said.
On Tuesday, Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale said a "couple of dozen" complaints prompted the decision to cancel Baldwin.
On Wednesday, Natale said the missing commercials would be aired in response to even greater criticism about the cancellation.
Besides comments the company received and others flashed across the Internet, an online petition begun by a Syracuse-area actress, Rita Worlock, to reinstate the ads had attracted several hundred signers by Wednesday.
"We regret ending the Alec Baldwin holiday commercials one week earlier than planned in response to a couple of dozen complaints. We have decided to run the commercials again, effective immediately," Natale said in an emailed statement.
"Clearly, many more people support Alec, as evidenced by the hundreds and hundreds of tweets, emails and phone calls we have received. We enjoyed working with Alec Baldwin and his mom, Carol, and would do it again. We appreciate all the kind things they have said about Wegmans and respect the good work they do for communities."
Social media backlashes don't automatically ensure immediate corporate responses: Lowe's, the home improvement chain, so far is sticking to its decision to pull advertising from a reality show focusing on Muslim families.
But Matthew Hiltzik, who through his New York City company Hiltzik Strategies is a publicist for Baldwin, said Wegmans responded correctly.
"Wegmans is an honorable company that acknowledged and addressed their mistake," Hiltzik said.
Natale said Tuesday that the grocer had no plans this year to use Baldwin as a spokesman. On Wednesday, she said that the company was open to working with him again.
After a 2010 appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman," Baldwin began doing the ads. He had told Letterman that his mother, who lives in the Syracuse area, had declined to move to California because of her allegiance to Wegmans.
Wegmans' rapid turnabout may have been motivated by a desire to maintain its image as a customer-centric business, said George Cook, professor of business administration at the Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester.
"This is a company that is very conscious of its positive public image," Cook said. "It will be very sensitive to pushback of this kind."
Cook said he didn't expect the company to suffer much.
"This will be forgotten in two weeks," he said.
Syracuse's Thompson said that one upshot of incidents like the Verizon Wireless and Wegmans reversals may be that companies more closely assess what might happen before they make moves.
"I am surprised that companies are still doing this kind of thing without accumulating a lot of data first," Thompson said.



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