The story was all over the internet on Friday, “If you like Cheerios on Facebook, you’re not allowed to sue us.”
General Mills, the overseer of such brands as Chex, Cheerios, and Betty Crocker, changed its legal terms, and what followed was your typical case of the unyielding, unforgiving internet working itself into a frenzy, all of which stemmed from an article published by the New York Times with the headline “When ‘Liking’ a Brand Online Voids the Right to Sue.”
According to The New York Times, one “give(s) up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, ‘join’ it through online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest, or interact with it in a variety of other ways.” Any consumer, upon reading this, would rightfully call foul and, somewhat ironically, engage with the company via Social to express their dismay.
After the internet essentially collapsed on them over the weekend, General Mills fought back, explaining in a blog post that the story published by The Times “mischaracterized” the company’s new legal terms. “No one is precluded from suing us by purchasing our products at a store,” the blog said. “And no one is precluded from suing us when they ‘like’ one of our Facebook pages. That is just a mischaracterization.” Forbes published an article the same day bashing The Times for its “misleading” headline and explained that General Mills’ goal with its new policy was to protect its brands against class-action suits, where a group of plaintiffs file a claim, but often individually receive little in restitution. Instead, like all major corporations, they prefer to resolve disputes via arbitration, outside of the court system.
Aahh but the internet, oh that faithful internet, already had its David v. Goliath story, and ran with it. Comments on every Chex and Cheerios post lambasted the food company for its new policy. In fact, posts linking to The Times’ story continue even today on Cheerio’s Facebook page, despite the fact that General Mills reverted to its old legal terms following the outcry.
So, was this shady and lazy journalism by the New York Times? Yes, but it was also terrible communication and consumer awareness on the part of General Mills.
The unfortunate truth of the internet is the fact that shady journalism exists, will eternally exist, and people will believe every word of it they read. While it may be impossible to protect a brand against all ill-informed attacks, General Mills could have, and should have, done some preventative damage control to ensure that their devoted customers were well-informed of the changes.
Brand trust is a big deal, so when a company quietly makes changes to its legal policy, it’s natural for customers to feel as if they just had the rug pulled out from under them. Following such dubious behavior on the part of the company, the cynical hounds of the internet will smell blood and not waste a second before jumping all over a brand. The key to Social is in responding to such criticism multiple times, multiple ways and on multiple channels. However, it’s better to know how to avoid these situations from happening in the first place.
If you’re a brand, fighting with consumers (especially those who are ill-informed) is almost always a losing battle. It’s a company’s duty to make sure consumers are well-informed about legal and privacy policies, especially the ones that deal directly with Social Media interactions, and to inform those consumers before The New York Times does.
Or (at the very least) make sure that The Times is well-informed.