Corporations are being held accountable by the public like never before thanks to the Internet. Beverage giant PepsiCo announced that it would no longer be using a controversial ingredient
—brominated vegetable oil—also used as a flame retardant, in its popular Gatorade sports drinks.
Although PepsiCo claims to have had the change "in the works for some time," the announcement came only after a petition on Change.org, started by 15-year-old Sarah Kavanagh, gathered more than 200,000 signatures and drew national attention, even landing her on "The Dr. Oz Show," as well as earning her a tour of The New York Times' offices.
How can you stay in the good graces of a public that demands change?
There is no excuse for being blindsided by a welling of public sentiment. It's all but guaranteed that any idea that's really picking up steam will be discussed on social media, so set up keyword alerts for terms relating to your brand or mentions. Don't let them pile up for a week before taking a look either, any delay in recognition could be costly.
It also pays to remember that no automated service can compete with the abilities of a living, thinking human being. If at all possible, make at least one person responsible for regularly sifting through the popular social media sites and passing on relevant information to the rest of the team.
Be gracious in defeat
Someone behind the scenes at PepsiCo may very well be fuming over the fact that it's been strong-armed into making a change that took precious funds to research and implement, but it's certainly not showing it.
Even before announcing the ingredient change, PepsiCo told reporters seeking comment that, "We appreciate Sarah as a fan of Gatorade, and her concern has been heard."
As a result, there has been a noticeable lack of negative publicity for the company. In fact, PepsiCo's reputation has gotten a healthy boost as both environmental and public interest groups applaud its cooperative attitude.
"When I went to Change.org to start my petition, I thought it might get a lot of support because no one wants to gulp down flame retardant, especially from a drink they associate with being healthy," Kavanagh said via a statement on Change.org. "But with Gatorade being as big as they are, sometimes it was hard to know if we'd ever win."
"This is so, so awesome," she said.
Share your plans
Pepsi hasn't been shy about sharing its plans, giving all kinds of details to trade publication Beverage Digest including the exact name of the "safe" ingredient that will fill the role formerly occupied by the controversial brominated vegetable oil. These were, of course, picked up and repeated by many mainstream publications, sending the message, "PepsiCo cares about your health," loud and clear.
By being proactive, open, and showing some old-fashioned good manners, PepsiCo has repositioned itself from purveyor of poison to responsible, consumer-loving company.
This type of consumer activism is only going to grow in popularity as the average citizen sees that it really does work. Keep your eyes open, recognize when your stakeholders are clamoring for change, and lock in your position as the good guy by making the change they want a reality.
Erik Bernstein is the social media manager at Bernstein Crisis Management.