Social Media: Costco’s Cod Worms

The role of social media in crisis communication has become very important over the past five to ten years. This post will briefly outline some of the pros and cons about social media in an organizational context.

Pros:

Social media are useful tools for organizations to spread their messages. Social media sights are absolutely great advertising platforms. They provide organizations with direct channels of communication to stakeholders.

Organizations use social media to monitor risks, track issues, address rumors, and identify crises. Every major company should have employees who are dedicated to monitoring and using social media.

Problems:

A major problem with social media is that everyone has the same opportunity to create and share content. Social media consumers are generally more likely to believe something that was shared by a friend than they are likely to believe something shared by a consumer organization.

Another problem is that social media is selective. If a YouTube video is posted that damages your organization’s reputation, then the general rule is to post another YouTube video addressing the issue. This way, you will be presumably reaching the same audience. But, the truth is that you are not actually reaching the same audience. People seek out content that they want to consume. Often, they only care about content that reaffirms their worldviews. If something is generally accepted as true, there is not a lot that you can do to refute that worldview on social media. People will not seek out your response to a damaging message unless it aligns with their worldview, or it is particularly interesting.

A case:

Costco has had trouble in the past with viral videos showing worms in their fish. In 2012 a video (see link below) was posted to YouTube that showed worms in a piece of cod purchased at Costco. The video has 53,695 views and 92 comments.

2012 video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d76tB2dCqw0

The comments on the video were varied. Some of them condemned Costco as a company that only “…cares about money. Not health.” Other comments were actually informative and pointed out that “cod worms” are pretty common. The worms are safe if the fish is cooked correctly, and most cod lovers are aware of the possibility of worms.

In this case, the comments on the video helped to stem a minor crisis for Costco. Recently, however, a similar viral video was posted to Facebook (see link below). This video was posted on March 14th, 2014. It currently has 273,182 shares, only five days later.

Link to Facebook video: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=685511298174152&set=vb.100001458647453&type=2&theater

In this case, the comments are not contained in one thread. Unlike the first video, many of those who viewed this video were not educated about the worms by fellow users.

Taking my own friend group (which is generally educated and primarily native to Colorado) as an example, all of the comments were negative. Some examples are, “um. don’t buy meat from a place like costco,” and “The FDA is a joke. All they care about is $$$.” While I do not want to overgeneralize from my friend group, I am sure this sentiment has reoccurred without being challenged in many communities where the video was shared.

The concern around the video became so strong that a local news source took up the story after receiving multiple emails (see link below). This story, however, has yet to go viral and has likely only reached a limited population. The article is not very reassuring, but it was more informative than the original video.

News link: http://www.wspa.com/story/25020699/worm-in-package-of-fish-at-spartanburg-costco-goes-viral

Unfortunately, there is not a lot that Costco can do about this situation. If they made a public statement it would likely only serve to raise awareness about the commonality of the worms. The fact that the worms are generally harmless would likely be less important to consumers than the reality of their existence. But, at least Costco would know why their produce sales were dropping. Costco might be able to address the issue by removing or reducing the amount of cod sold in Colorado stores for a time.

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