Crisis Communications through Social Media in Japan

Recently, a prominent Japanese company experienced a case of social media marketing gone awry.

UCC Ueshima Coffee Ltd (UCC) had an established, eleven-year long marketing campaign called, “Good Smile Coffee.” This campaign made use of traditional PR activities utilizing traditional media vehicles, such as magazines and newspapers. This year, UCC wanted to get ahead of their competition and deploy social media techniques for the Good Smile campaign. Like other companies employing these methods, UCC decided to use Twitter, expecting they could reach different targets, generate a large impact via the Internet, and foster a viral word-of-mouth marketing campaign.

UCC kicked off their Twitter-centric approach at 10:00am on February 5th, with eleven Twitter BOTs that automatically generated and sent Good Smile Coffee messages that keyed off approximately 30 related searchable words including, “coffee,” “prize,” and “UCC.”

Almost immediately, twitter users started feeling they were being spammed, causing UCC to halt the campaign in just under two hours. Observing the flurry of criticism that followed the ill-timed, ill-directed spam tweet, many people have harshly pointed to UCC’s lack of understanding of what makes Twitter successful. What isn’t often pointed out is how deftly UCC handled the ensuing situation. In what could have been a tremendous failure of marketing, instead ended up being a successful resolution that potentially strengthened consumer loyalty.

As soon as the mistake was identified, UCC expeditiously took action to resolve the issue. At 11:30am, 90 minutes after the Twitter BOTs were first activated, Twitter users started to complain about being the targets of spam messaging. At 11:50am, UCC decided to immediately suspend their Twitter BOT engines. Four hours later, UCC management issued an official apology on their website. This was followed up two days later with a progress report on the situation through their official Twitter account, “@ueshimacoffee.” On February 9, four days after the initial event, UCC held a press briefing (to mostly online media) and explained how the incident happened and what actions have been taken to prevent a recurrence. UCC’s quick and decisive action was able to defuse a pressured situation both quickly and calmly.

In terms of “crisis communications,” the actions UCC took were effective, efficient, and able to rectify the initial error both quickly and decisively. By communicating directly and deliberately with their annoyed twitterers, some users applauded UCC for their prompt reaction and sincere attitude. As Twitter and other social media methods are adopted, PR activities like this one will become “must-have” functions for all PR professionals as strategies, not as spontaneous reactions.

As part of their plan to prevent similar issues, UCC arranged an internal workshop on the “do’s and don’ts” for the marketing and promotional use of social media delivery mechanisms, sharing the experiences learned from their recent episode.

PR firms have received many inquiries from their clients on how to best leverage twitter for promotions, campaigns, and other PR activities. While many opportunities exist in this realm, and many success stories exist that can be useful models, learning from the mistakes of others is one of the most important lessons available. The Japanese are paying close attention on how UCC’s workshop will turn out and how UCC will improve its image through this scenario.

In Japan, like any other place in the world, emerging social media channels have impacted how messages are delivered and how communications are performed. Responding to this transformation, the traditional Japanese method of PR-driven crisis communication tends to be slow, quiet, and under-effective. Japanese companies, like those of the rest of the world, will need to become quicker, more agile, and even more open with their communications than ever before. Miki Ito is the Director of TrainTracks, a full service public relations firm based in Tokyo, Japan. TrainTracks is a partner agency of EASTWEST Public Relations. To find out more about TrainTracks, click here.

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