Social media, as it turns out, can be an equal opportunity devil. After months of angry emails, thousands of dollars of lost business and local protests, Clay Nissan in Norwood was exonerated over the firing of brain cancer patient Jill Colter. The Norflok, Massachusetts Superior Court ruling found that, in using social media to drive public opinion against Clay — and doing so without supporting evidence — Adam and Jonathan Colter had defamed and libeled the dealership and were ordered to pay $1.5 million in penalties. The brothers are appealing.
The decision affirms the notion that using a poison pen to defame others without appropriate evidence is against the very spirit on which public discussion was founded. Even in the wild frontier of social media, thrashing another person or company — causing them to lose opportunity and reputation — comes with a requirement of basic ethics and supporting facts. It also shows that in a world that’s increasingly transparent, businesses will be held accountable for their actions in the court of public opinion.
Despite the ruling in favor of the dealership, at least one expert has some trouble seeing the affair as anything but a mixed bag. “The only win here is not to chase the judgement, and — if you do end up collecting, donate the money to a charity,” said Jim Reynolds, strategic account manager for Brandwatch. The company specializes in social media reporting, moderation and engagement. “Sometimes you can’t fight the fight in social media. Really the best thing that could happen is that the story goes away faster.”
Reynolds sees the Clay vs. Colters affair as the first big example of social media activism. “It’s one of the first times we’ve seen a dealership targeted with consumer activism to this extent,” said Reynolds. The difference, says Reynolds, is that this was more than a flame-up. On-the-street protests were organized as a result of the actions taken via the brothers’ facebook page. At the end, it turns out that those actions by the Colters didn’t come with any evidence, and in fact the Clay Nissan had plenty with which to prove that Jill Colter’s removal was based on other factors. But none of those facts are likely to go viral and restore the Clay name. Therein lies the fundamental challenge of social media: Companies take a risk to participate for the reward of increased consumer engagement and positive sentiment. Indeed, it’s less a reward than a requirement: report after report clearly shows that shoppers have chosen social media as the channel on which they gather information that’s pertinent to their purchase and their decisions around loyalty. Not being in the space equates to having no one answer your phone.
Managing that risk, says Reynolds, is all about fundamentals. “Pay attention to what’s going on in social media. You have to initially understand what’s going on first before you can make a risk assessment.” Reynolds advises companies to be as transparent as possible, to be consistent and to actively listen.
“Really every brand will have a certain percentage of haters. It’s unavoidable,” said Reynolds. “Sometimes you are just going to deal with trolls.”