Why are we so ready to criticise? (or “No Social Media Guru is an Island”)

As has often been observed, there’s something irresistable about schadenfreude. That’s one reason for the obsessive finger-pointing by the digerati every time a new brand experiences a social media crisis.

Another may be our unholy desire for traffic. After all, I’m writing this blog post in response to today’s Nestlé-Greenpeace-Facebook storm (if you’re coming to this story late, Sam Ismail’s post offers background). More to the point, at least four bloggers cleverly promoted their coverage of the events in the Facebook comment stream.

Twitter conversationSeveral social media mavens got so involved that they joined the side of the protesters against Nestlé: twittering animatedly, changing their avatars, publishing lists of brands owned by Nestlé (and therefore eligible for boycott), or by referring the community manager to the Cluetrain Manifesto or Gary Vaynerchuck videos.

Examples of similar foul-ups pepper our presentations, mine included: I’m presenting on crisis management on Tuesday. All my case studies come down to two things:

  • people inside your business fucking you over through ill-will or ignorance; and/or
  • people outside your business fucking you over through ill-will or ignorance

Put that aside. As an industry I’d argue, it can seem that we’re obsessed with failure. And we’re nasty with it. Other than politics or the pro-wrestling circuit, I can’t think of another industry so ready to criticise one another in public. At each new crisis, the web buzzes with our speculation, exaggeration, misinformation, chinese whispers, and rumourmongering of which the events of today were just an example.

Social Media Pogroms

Why are social media gurus so ready to criticise each other in public? I suspect that our readiness to criticise the brands and agencies for whom (under different circumstances) we might work is in fact an artefact of social media. This is a an example of social behaviour. Compare it to mob behaviour. Playground behaviour where netiquette is ignored. We want to join in the fun; even when the fun turns out to be kicking someone when they’re down.


Kerry Gaffney and I once came up with a rule-of-thumb: “don’t be too quick to jump in because there but for the grace of God go you.” It sounds sententious, but we reckoned that it would pay off in time; people would, we felt, be less likely to jump on us when we inevitably #failed.

Here’s what I think: until we can grow up and leave the playground, we won’t be able to help our clients gain the confidence they need to make the right decisions in this area.

Individuals should try to come to terms with the fact that they work in marketing; and stop trying to moonlight as anti-globalization anti-corporation cowboys. Learn to love what you do, for fuck’s sake.

And I think we should go a step further. We should stand up for each other. Only a very few (and highly honourable) people stood up for We Are Social when they took an unnecessary pasting over Eurostar. I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t one of those; while like many others I left messages of support on Robin’s post, I didn’t help to fight fires on TechCrunch or elsewhere.

And that brings me to the last idea: where we can, we should probably try to help clients in distress — even if they aren’t our clients. That might help our industry look professional and responsible. It’s a bit of a big ask: “why,” you might ask, “should I spend valuable business cycles helping someone else’s client?” But wouldn’t it be more constructive than spending those same few meagre cycles adding fuel to yet another social media fire?

Post Script

Incidentally, in the unlikely event that you’re interested in my take on the Nestlé situation: a bunch of social media gurus and pre-existing anti-Nestlé activists probably won’t do too much damage to the brand. Anything to do with Facebook has a whiff of slacktivism to me. Within a week or so there’ll be another stinking piece of Social Media carrion around which we can snarl and posture. Also, a campaign to knight Eddie Izzard seems to have more traction in the non-guru social media world.


  1. says

    As you say, I doubt there will be a lot of long-term damage to the brand from this one incident, but if you look at Nestle’s actions over the last year with social media ( http://bit.ly/9VeNvA ), it does seem the company is unafraid to go toe-to-toe in a confrontational style with online people.

    The other thing that made me suspicious of all of this is that as many people seemed upset about the rudeness of Nestle as were upset about the actual issue at hand, which kind of reinforced my viewpoint that a lot of people using social media are quick to judge in the digital world and also narcisstic as hell.

    As for the professionals who decide to put their beliefs up as a picture or icon, I have no problem with that, but they have to accept that it may put some people off hiring them.

    And I would feel pretty daft if I lost work for a one-day belief or for backing a cause that I hadn’t fully researched. (After all, Nestle said they were changing their operating procedure but I bet 90% of those jumping on the bandwagon today didn’t even bother to read Nestle’s position on this. Heavens no, that would have got in the way of a rant).

    And you’re right about helping out. I like doing that in blog posts, that way it feels more like constructive criticism than just negativity. (I posted some thoughts at http://bit.ly/9XhySF )

    Nestle did do plenty wrong here but I don’t think the other sides – YouTube (who pulled the video) or the so-called online activists – come out in glory either. Has Greenpeace seen a surge in membership or donations since? I’m willing to wager ‘no’ and lots of people will think they’ve done their bit by posting on FB.

    As you say, online and the power of being behind a keyboard seem to bring out the worst in some people. It’s almost rabble rousing.

  2. says

    Hi Mat, Thanks for the post.

    We’re (I’m) definitely attracted to schadenfreude, you’re saying that the communications industry is obsessed with failure and pointing fingers, though I’d say it’s all human beings across industries – as people in marketing / PR / advertising / etc, there just happens to be more vocal people there than in other industries. And all operating as commercial entities who perhaps are seeing opportunities for new business, kicking whichever agency was on watch during the crisis while they’re down on the ground.

    It’s completely mob behaviour, and I participated. I feel I can say I’m the person who added the Greenpeace spoof logo on the screen capture above – reason being, I saw the video from Greenpeace and really liked it; thought it was revolting, hilarious and deserved some praise so I shared i round the office; then realised there was some mess going on their Facebook Page; got excited and really liking the idea I joined in; changed my avatars and posted on Nestle FB just because they said they would delete it (and asking them to give the apes a break).

    Childish? I’m sure some will think so, it probably was, and most certainly slacktivist (I learned this awesome word tonight, thanks for that one).

    But then again I think being enthusiastically childish and actively playing in this space is what allows me to understand it better and understand how people function in it, might sound silly, but that includes mob behaviour.

    While I was looking at that Nestle FB Page, I was also thinking they weren’t weathering the storm badly at all – not much else they could do at that stage (I don’t know about all they did though). The Page says something like ‘We’re learning as we go. Thanks for your comments.’

    About coming to terms with what we do, I remember an excellent post with some great comments about that from Jon Howard (Living Brands), I can’t find it right now though. I love what I do, but I’ll probably always have questions about how right it is and the kind of difference I’m making.

    There’s probably a lot more I could add but I’ll stop rambling here for now, it’s getting late and I’m not sure how much value it would really add. ;)

    • Anonymous says

      Thanks Willem; as it happens our quick Twitter chat was what prompted this post (as I’ve explained elsewhere, you weren’t the marketer I’d first spotted using a spoof Nestlé logo.) It was your use of words like “fun” that gave me insight into my own behaviour in these matters in the past. I think old-school digital marketing people would just put all of this down to a failure in netiquette, but it’s more than that, I sense.

      As to your point about there being “more vocal people [in marketing comms] than in other industries”, I think that’s perceptive. One of the things I was going to try to address was the nature and relatively small size of the “echo chamber” and the misinformation we receive as a result.

      After one rather nasty crisis, we pulled together a list of guidelines. One of them, I recall said something like “Get a sense of perspective — most people aren’t aware of your problem, and you’re not the only one having a problem today.” I spent some time watching the trending topics yesterday. While Nestlé made it into the list a few times, it was certainly no #trafigura. And yet, for our industry it was the only game in town…

  3. KerryMG says

    There are so many reasons why we’re keen to jump on the fallen. I think, like with many things, conversations that were once held in private, we now think are acceptable to air in public. That seems to now go for pretty much everything, passing around the misery of others included.

    I also think that the social media gurus think that by commenting on the stuff that’s gone wrong, they somehow establish credibility about how they would’ve done it better. I also think there is a sense on infallibility when it comes to online, everyone is an expert and until you’ve f’cked up, you never think you are going to.

    I should prolly disclose here that while I didn’t tweet or blog about this Nestle, I did speak to PR Week and offer some thoughts on what Nestle should oerhaps have considered when starting their FaceBook fan page, which can be seen here – http://bit.ly/9YWhVW. Any feedback on my thoughts is very welcome

  4. says

    While social media for marketing is in its infancy – and there is no clear consesus on best practice (there are countless interpretations propogated every day online) any slip up online will be fed upon. After all, what better opportunity to opine than when clearing up someone else’s mess.

    Being supportive of those under fire is probably as good as it would get. Taking the time to provide genuine help in a crisis – though a noble idea – is a touch utopian in a competitive arena, where everyone is seeking an edge.

  5. says

    It may be fake, but mix this with the Greenpeace Palm Oil viral, and the facebook mess up and you have something that may be effecting the companies share price, I have been tracking the share price and cross referencing it against the online opinion and – they are both dropping at the moment – next week could be an interesting one for Nestle, and it’s shareholders!

    Fake or not.


    This comment was originally posted on Wadds’ PR Blog

  6. says

    Asa, I pointed out over at the http://www.contently-managed.com/blog that it’s not the first online spat Nestle have had. In the past they’ve had family blogger rows and tried to buy URLs of their critics, so I’m spotting a trend that appears to show a corporation’s true face – they like to bully or buy their way out of trouble.

    Wadds, as always, a good post. I don’t know about people being polite to others though because there will always be someone arrogant enough – or ignorant enough – to just jump in and criticise.

    This comment was originally posted on Wadds’ PR Blog

  7. Bonochromatic says

    Stephen – Stop being a twit. The Facebook page is real and you know it. Nestle could have contacted Facebook and had a “fake” page taken down within minutes of becoming aware of it. Facebook is excellent about policing fake pages, or pages run by people who don’t represent companies.

    A better question is, why are you a Nestle apologist? Shareholder, or do you just not understand that a single individual has completely destroyed what little social media goodwill they had?

    See Craig McGill’s comments above – this isn’t the first time Nestle has bungled social media like that, although this might be the last.

    This comment was originally posted on Wadds’ PR Blog

  8. Ben Thompson says


    quite often its what you will learn from providing that genuine help that will be the edge.

    Plus when you have your crisis (which WILL occur sometime down the line) you’ll have favours to call in.

  9. says

    Bonochromatic – I’m not an apologist for Nestle at all. Or a shareholder for that matter. And you’re spot on. If it was a false page Nestle would have asked Facebook to pull it by now.

    My response is purely driven by gut instinct. As a news journalist I would have been expected to second source the Nestle story. We’ve lost any degree of primary scrutiny in social media.

    Asa/Craig – So you’ve done your research and Nestle has form. Fair play.

    This comment was originally posted on Wadds’ PR Blog

  10. says

    We are mean, we love to kick people when their down. Especially in new industries, in the early days everyone is fighting to establish themselves as a guru with a view to being names a founding father (or mother) so they have to crush opponants.

    Posts a harshly critical blog is also a great way to drive views.

    Mean but true fact, and you are right: Karma is a bitch.

  11. says

    Hey Mat. Good and interesting post. I suspect it may be me you’re referring to as someone who posted a list of Nestle products for people to boycott.

    My take – fwiw – is that there were two stands of activity at play: people slating Nestle for SM behaviour and those slating Nestle for their corporate behaviour. I fell into the latter and I think the two groups were more distinct (with some blurring) than you account for.

    Yes – there were digital marketing/PR types critiquing Nestle’s response but also people wanting to highlight to a potentially wider audience that Nestle are less than ‘clean’ in business practice.

    I think it’s a bit naive to suggest that people “ranting” about Nestle need to have read the full situation of their Palm Oil procurement practice. You’ll know as well as I do that while it would be ideal for people to fully inform themselves before sounding off, most don’t – to the chagrin of PR professionals! Add to the that the almost certain weasel words of “changes in procurement processes by 2020″ etc and once you start trying to be balanced you enter a PR wormhole.

    My 2p worth :)

    • Mat Morrison says

      @Simon; a good point, and someone had to make it — glad it was you.

      There are two threads on Facebook, as you say; and by far the most significant thread is the anti-corporate one. It might be argued that without the constant trolling of their Facebook Page, Nestlé would have been less inclined to try and implement a few (and fairly reasonable) community rules.

      I’d argue that Nestlé faced a baying pitchfork-wielding mob on both fronts, though. The social media gurus were just as irrational and emotionally-led (and just as carried along by the mob) as the student activists, crusties, hunt sabs, and animal liberationists who represented the central issue.

      (There: colours nailed to the mast)


  1. […] Mat Morison makes the point that social media practitioners are incredibly quick to criticise and pass judgement. He also dishes out some sound advice. “Kerry Gaffney and I once came up with a rule-of-thumb: “don’t be too quick to jump in because there but for the grace of God go you.” It sounds sententious, but we reckoned that it would pay off in time; people would, we felt, be less likely to jump on us when we inevitably #failed.” […]

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