Online Outrage: H&M and Procter & Gamble Issues with Building Trust

Companies and leaders using social media to build trust can find themselves on the other end of online outrage. Consider the challenges H&M faced in January and Procter & Gamble’s is having currently with Twitter and Facebook criticism.

I asked Dr. Judy Olson, Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences at University of California at Irvine, about her research on developing trust in social media. She pointed out that people make negative judgments with very little information. They also change opinions quickly. Responsiveness is key in generating trust online, as is being empathetic, she says. Beside face to face meetings, which predictably offer the greatest opportunity for building trust, Dr. Olson pointed to social chats as generating trust when we find overlapping interests with someone.  Seeing who the friends are of a stranger on Facebook, for example, furthers trust. Providing endorsements from trusted sources are also good ways to develop trust online.

H&M’s and P&G’s issues have in common that a handful of people not receiving answers they felt were responsive were catalysts for fueling like-minded people to band together applying pressure for both information and change.

A college student in New York City found shredded, unsold H&M clothes in a bag outside an H&M store, contacted H&M headquarters to complain, didn’t get a response, and then called a New York Times reporter. The reporter investigated and found a bag of shredded clothes by another H&M store; H&M didn’t return his call. The news hit Twitter gaining so much traction that the topic became number two on trending topics. A day later H&M, in reputation repair mode, responded to the reporter, on Twitter, and on Facebook saying the practice would not happen again.

The attention created on Facebook and Twitter by unhappy customers claiming P&G’s new Pampers diaper causes chemical burn has resulted in the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission launching an investigation. Last week, a class action lawsuit was filed against the company.

Customers unsatisfied with the answers they’ve received to explain the severe reactions they say their babies have had to the new diaper product blame the company for lack of responsiveness, and are calling for a P&G boycott and product recall.  In turn, P&G says it is the victim of a false rumor campaign and is using traditional and social media to talk to its total universe of customers.

In one of its press releases, P&G included a YouTube video by Dr. Kimberly Thompson of Kids Risk, Inc. seeking to provide third-party endorsement of steps P&G had taken to determine product safety.

However, Dr. Thompson works on P&G external advisory boards, which I didn’t see acknowledged on the video. Jodi Allen, a P&G vice president responsible for Pampers, previously had an active Twitter presence which hasn’t been used since February.

Hits to P&G’s reputation will likely depend on whether the Product Safety Commission finds issue with the product or if the legal action reveals damaging information:

  • Is this a case of extreme parent reaction to the normal range of mild to severe rashes, or personal allergies, made worse by P&G not finding a way initially to create trust with its customers?
  • Is P&G being attacked by worried parents or instigators with an agenda?
  • Was the product badly launched and poorly explained or simply unsafe?

Social media feeds on ambiguity and inaction much faster than print media and arrives at its own conclusions at cyber speed. Companies slow to react pay a huge price in lost or damaged trust, whether guilty or not. Cyberspace doesn’t operate on the principle that you are innocent unless proven otherwise.

Gael O’Brien,   May 18, 2010

The Week in Ethics


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