Harvey Norman avoids PR disaster, pulls offensive radio ad four hours after Twitter backlash

Businesses are being urged to monitor social media to avoid public relations disasters, after an incident over the weekend saw retail giant Harvey Norman sidestep a potential boycott by pulling a radio advertisement only four hours after backlash started appearing on Twitter.

James Griffin, who runs online reputation management group SR7, says the incident is an example of how businesses can use social media to their advantage by not only communicating and selling, but by stopping negative sentiment from swelling into larger problems.

“I think this could have easily spun out of control. But credit to Harvey Norman, they were quick to react through their Twitter account, and were quite active within a short amount of time and directly contacted the people involved who were unhappy and considering a boycott.”

The incident also comes as National Australia Bank has drawn praise from some customers, after it used social media over the past week to keep in direct contact with customers who were caught up in the bank’s accounting glitch that left millions without pay.

The entire Harvey Norman exchange is documented on activist Melinda Reist’s blog. Reist says she was sent a Facebook alert about the Harvey Norman advertisement, which reportedly promoted the ability to have in-store photos with Santa but used the line “Do you want to give Santa a lap dance?”

Immediately, Reist sent out some tweets about the incident calling for a boycott. Soon after, several other Twitter users joined in the chorus until the official Harvey Norman Twitter account stepped into the fray.

Soon after, Harvey Norman social media head Gary Wheelhouse sent Reist an email, stating that he would “absolutely make sure this goes to the right people”. Forty-five minutes later, the company confirmed the radio ad had been pulled – about four hours after Reist sent her first tweet.

“I was surprised,” she says. “I’ve never seen a corporation respond to quickly. It was the fastest response I’ve ever seen, particularly for a Sunday afternoon.”

“I think they recognised the need to address the issue quickly, especially as people were threatening to stop purchasing, and with Christmas being their busiest period, the timing wasn’t good for them.”

Reist says the incident is a good example of how businesses can use social media to quash scandals before they cost sales.

“Harvey Norman is engaging in social media, and not all companies are doing that yet. The medium makes everything so much more instant, and it’s a great tool for people like myself… usually what would happen is that I would rally my organisation to respond, but there was no need to this time.”

“We’d love to see other companies move just as quickly.”

Harvey Norman was contacted for comment, but no reply was received before publication.

Griffin says SMEs should immediately make profiles on social networks, even if they are only used to see what others are saying about them.

“I think once again, this is similar to the issue Gap had with its logo. It’s about consumers using social media to put pressure on companies, but more broadly, they are having a say in how these organisations are operating.”

“We’re finding that clients are being pushed into using social media as a communicative tool, but they are also using it to get the law of the land and see what’s being said. Even if their organisation isn’t a good fit with social media, it should be used to see what people are saying about you.”

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