Some of you may be aware of the controversy that has recently emerged surrounding the claims made by self-proclaimed ‘Food Babe’, Vani Hari. She is apparently a computer science graduate who has amassed a huge following (and a lot of money) speaking out against ‘Big Pharma’ and positioning herself as a ‘food activist’, a lone army speaking out against the perils posed by toxins in our environment and our food. All good, you say? Well, to an extent, I agree. I don’t want to eat or breathe ‘nasty chemicals’ either.
BUT (and it’s a big but!) she has recently come under fire from a forensic chemist who wrote this piece in Hawker, exposing many of her claims as based on a complete misunderstanding of science (you can read more here, here, and here). She was consequently inundated on social media by people questioning her claims.
It’s a shame. Her message – encouraging people to eat more natural, healthy food – is a good one. It actually doesn’t NEED the help of dubious claims – the scientific ones are good enough!
I imagine that there aren’t too many businesses or bloggers that have never been criticised. How they respond is incredibly important. It appears that Ms. Hari’s approach hasn’t been particularly well received. Linked In detailed some of her more bonkers claims, and also her response to the crisis here. Essentially she lashed out at her critics and made unsupported accusations about their motivations.
The most common responses to criticism I’ve noticed from organisations are:
- Ignore. This may be the best option when criticism is unfounded and personal in nature, but not when legitimate complaints are made. This appears to have largely been Woolworths’ approach to the negative response to their recent campaign seeking to leverage Anzac Day. They have removed the ads and distanced themselves from the advertising agency that created them. They have been quoted as saying that it wasn’t meant to be an advertising campaign (oh right, so they just did it for purely selfless reasons? If that was the case, their name wouldn’t have appeared, surely?).
- Humour. For relatively minor misdemeanours (such as this one by TimTam), a humorous response can actually contribute to a brand’s image and turn a negative into a positive. This response is unlikely to work for a more serious mistake, however.
- Apology. This may seem like the best response – but it’s very important to get the tone right, especially on social media, where the tone of exchanges is generally more friendly and informal than in more business oriented channels. Sportsgirl recently came under fire for its use of angora fur – and even more heat for the wording of its response. The tone of the company’s apology on Facebook was too formal for social media. However there were other issues with the apology. Sportsgirl stated that ‘we strongly believe that being fashionable should not impact our customers values’. But as many respondents pointed out, what about your values, Sportsgirl?
- Deny or counter the claims. This has been Food Babe’s approach – but she made a crucial mistake – her claims regarding her critics’ dubious motives were unsupported, which made her appear to be a crazy conspiracy theorist. If an organisation takes this path, it really needs to be able to support any claims it makes.
So how should Ms. Hari have approached her crisis?
If I was advising her, here’s what I’d suggest:
- Apologise for the misleading nature of some of her claims, and point out that while some of her claims have been discredited, many others have not.
- Promise to be more rigorous in her approach in the future – and maybe even hire her own respected scientist or researcher to fact check for her.
Of course, all this could have been avoided if she’d just been a bit more careful about what she said in the first place – and therein lies a very important lesson for businesses: double check everything! When it comes to social media, there’s nowhere to hide.
What would you have advised Ms Hari (or any of the other organisations I’ve mentioned) to do?