Tesco’s Social Media Crisis

Another social media debacle broke this week – and once again companies and corporate communicators will be wondering whether they would be better off avoiding social media altogether. But are they right?

The story this time is that an irate Tesco customer, Nancy Atkinson-Turner, was falsely accused of shoplifting. She complained about the incident and, unhappy with Tesco’s response, wrote a vitriolic blog post. Alerted to this, Tesco made contact with her once more. Mrs Atkinson-Turner then tweeted that Tesco were unhappy about the blog and appealed for this to be retweeted. This went viral and within 24 hours the blog had received over 50,000 hits. Subsequently the story was picked up by the national press and Mrs Atkinson-Turner was interviewed on regional radio.

Superficially this story looks to be a familiar one – the failure of a large corporation to understand social media’s power to amplify a customer complaint. This would seem a surprising charge considering that Tesco themselves have a very active and effective Customer Care account on Twitter and indeed recently bought their own social media company.

I would suggest the opposite – that Tesco absolutely understand social media and, at least in terms of responding to a social media crisis, acted both quickly and prudently.

It is tempting to ask why Tesco didn’t act before the story went viral. But, in fact, they did – they contacted Mrs Atkinson-Turner immediately after she posted her blog which shows they are monitoring social media. The problem was that even though Tesco had tried to deal with the blog issue by speaking to Mrs Atkinson-Turner personally, she decided to tweet about this attempt publicly. And, once the tweet was live, there was nothing that they could do to stop the story from going viral.

First of all, the very nature of how the tweet was written meant that Tesco would have been unlikely to spot it. A company with the public image of Tesco is mentioned several times a minute on Twitter alone and it is not practical to read every Tweet that references them. Instead, companies have to rely on automated systems: these monitoring systems work by looking for search terms (say, ‘Tesco’) and then looking for either positive or negative words in close proximity to that search term. Unlike humans they are not good at identifying nuance or sarcasm or dealing with subtlety. Yet Mrs Atkinson-Turner’s tweet was largely neutral in nature:

“Tesco called. They aren’t too keen on my blog… so any RT’s to spread the word would be great! http://t.co/d9cQctk

Secondly, even if Tesco had miraculously picked up on the original tweet early on, it was already out on the network with a life of its own: the genie never goes back into the bottle. One can endlessly debate whether or not Tesco should then have launched a Twitter counter-offensive (I agree with Tesco’s tactics to maintain a dignified silence in this instance) – but the fact remains that at this point the tweet was being retweeted thousands of times and thousands of people were reading Mrs Atkinson-Turner’s blog, no matter what Tesco did.

For those companies and corporate communicators who might conclude that the solution is simply to avoid social media, think again: this incident would have occurred regardless of whether or not Tesco had a social media presence. However, having a monitoring system in place gave Tesco the ability to spot Mrs Atkinson-Turner’s blog post and to respond to it: monitoring systems may not be perfect but they are an essential first line of defence. Furthermore, having an active social media presence gave Tesco the option of responding on the social networks had the situation called for it.

Ultimately, the problem occurred because Tesco failed to assuage Mrs Atkinson-Turner’s anger after the false shoplifting accusation and before she felt compelled to write her blog. This is an old-fashioned customer relations issue rather than a new-fangled social media issue and is surely something they’ll be investigating internally.

This is a situation that every company would wish to avoid and questions must be asked as to what Tesco might have done differently. However, a knee-jerk aversion to social media would not be a helpful reaction. Like it or not, social media is here to stay – and for disgruntled customers, it’s can be a powerful weapon. However, properly handled it can be a powerful weapon in the corporate communicator’s arsenal too.

[Image: Creative Commons License / © Gordon Joly]


4 Responses to “Tesco’s Social Media Crisis”

  1. Interesting read Marcus.

    It seems this time Tesco couldn’t control the negative responses through the social media, even after picking it up early. This shows the ultimate power is in the hands of the users, hence the company should be prompt, humble and positive while dealing in social media.

    It also shows how important it is now to have a good sentiment analysis of the social media. Either you have an agency work for you 24/7 or you need a good Social monitoring tool.

  2. Marcus Fergusson says:

    Agreed – but the Holy Grail of social media monitoring still remains… Accurate, reliable sentiment analysis.

  3. […] (as you will read or hopefully read; I am giving you another chance here ) gives the perfect argument of why this is not social media fail on Tesco’s part, but rather […]

  4. Nancy Atkinson Turner says:


    Just wanted to say, The blog was posted because Tesco did not actually deal with me in any kind of acceptable manner prior to the 60k people reading it.

    But they did deal with it once the blog had gone viral.

    So I agree. Customer service fail massively BUT social media may have been bad for them but at least they noticed it.

    By having a Twitter presence and reading my blog it gave THEM the tools to deal with it effectively.

    The only problem is they still haven’t done this. They have claimed I accepted apologies. I have not.

    I think all businesses should embrace Twitter. BT use it. I moaned about them and was contacted with solutions to my slow broadband. That impressed me.

    Anyway. That’s all i wanted to say.


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