Activists Use Facebook To Help Pressure Nestlé On Deforestation Issue

By Sara Inés Calderón Comment

An environmental activists campaign urging consumers to nudge chocolatier Nestlé away from using Indonesian palm oil in its products exploded last week on Nestlé’s and its Kit Kat product’s Facebook Pages. The outcry helped prompt the company to announce plans to eliminate the oil in its Kit Kat product by mid-May, and reiterate its commitment to use only oil certified as sustainable by 2015.

For Facebook Page administrators, the lesson here is to be clear and responsive about user concerns, regardless of the situation. For activists looking to use Facebook as a campaigning tool, the jury is still out on how big of an effect it can have, overall. Here’s a closer look.

The anti-Nestlé effort was launched last Wednesday by environmental group Greenpeace to help promote its new report, “Caught Red-Handed: How Nestlé’s Use of Palm Oil is Having a Devastating Impact on Rainforest, The Climate and Orang-utans.” It detailed how the demand for palm oil from Nestlé and other large companies is prompting palm oil growers to illegally chop down endangered rainforests for more land.

In addition to the campaign’s web site and Facebook page, Greenpeace provided a visceral boost with a viral video featuring an office worker inadvertently eating an orangutan finger instead of a Kit Kat. Combined, the efforts got many Facebook activists to post to Nestlé and Kit Kat’s Facebook Pages, with reactions ranging from sensible to silly to outright angry. Fans, on the behest of Greenpeace, asked Nestlé to stop purchasing palm oil specifically from Sinar Mas, a company accused of breaking Indonesian law by clearing protected rain forests to grow palm oil.

Protesting fans used profile pictures that featured orangutans holding up signs with altered Nestlé logos. As we reported last week, Nestlé was also scolded by fans for attempting to censor the Facebook outcry by posting the following language, “To repeat: we welcome your comments, but please don’t post using an altered version of any of our logos as your profile pic–they will be deleted.” More than the legal complexity of this claim, fans felt like Nestlé really wasn’t listening. Eventually, it backed off the tactic. Meanwhile, “fans” — people who joined the Pages specifically to criticize Nestlé — are continuing to post about the accusations.

But Nestlé has been trying to recover the PR battle. The company said in a lengthy statement last week that it has already stopped working with Sinar Mas, been investigating abuse and looking closely at ways that deforestation-grown palm oil was entering its “complex” supply chain. There’s already corporate precedent for ditching the supplier — Unilever previously dropped its palm oil contract with Sinar Mas, following a similar Greenpeace campaign. While it has gotten some coverage on this point in media outlets, the Pages continue to be dominated by activists.

The company could be doing more to use the Page to explain its side. For starters, it should post the statement on the site — perhaps as a note, leaving it open for discussion by fans and critics. It should also assign representatives who can speak on behalf of the company in response to specific points raised by the company. Nestlé is responsible to its shareholders for its overall performance, not just the most vocal Facebook users; and while many people will not agree with its decisions, the company has at least taken the time to provide its perspective in public. It shouldn’t let this effort go to waste.

We’ve reported that social media has helped activists make a difference in their communities, such as Iran’s Green Revolution and the violence in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, yet all of these examples are anecdotal.

Aside from the timing of Nestlé’s response, we don’t have a lot of data showing results from Page. The stock price appears unaffected, for example. How many consumers are going to stop buying Nestlé products as a result of campaign? Even if Facebook helped influence the announcement timing, how will Nestlé’s changes impact the palm oil industry?

For brands facing organized campaigns, the obvious take-away from this situation is to try to address consumer concerns instead of censoring them. Antagonistic responses — or lack of any response — just makes the brand look guiltier of all accusations, no matter how fair they are. Brands need to make Facebook Pages a key place to respond directly. Nestlé did a good job of articulating its complex position, but it should use its Page to continue doing so. While this may not be comfortable for companies, the other options can be even more damaging.

Meanwhile, for activists looking to build movements using Facebook, the takeaway is similar. Greenpeace and other groups should (and we expect will) continue steadily promoting their views to Facebook fans. Using viral tactics to expose damaging business practices is a good one-time tactic, but building long-term awareness about issues is a constant process. It’s easy for a user to post a pre-planned campaign message on a Page, but it’s harder to get them to do substantive things, like change buying behavior, or become informed, helpful members of the cause.

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