A few weeks ago, rumors surfaced on social media that the home goods retailer Wayfair was allegedly involved in a child sex trafficking operation.
Various social media posts claimed that sales of throw pillows and storage cabinets, priced between $10,000-$20,000, were really a front for child trafficking. The posts pointed to seemingly exorbitant retail prices and the fact that the furniture was supposedly named after missing children as evidence.
The Wayfair rumors first began on a Reddit thread and quickly took on a life of their own on social media. More and more people have been relying on social media as a form of information without stopping to verify the legitimacy of sources.
While the rumors have been debunked, the real issue, it seems, is where does information like this begin and how should brands, like Wayfair, go about handling these rumors? Izquierdo, chair of FIU’s Department of Communication, sheds some light on this.
“There are steps and actions a company must take when information like this comes out, but I think equally important is the consumer responsibility,” says Izquierdo. “Social media has lots of micro-celebrities, influencers and so-called experts claiming ‘x, y and z,’ but that’s not to say that they are the experts. We have a responsibility as consumers to do a little extra due diligence when determining if what someone is posting online is actually credible.”
While the Wayfair conspiracy theory didn’t have a lot of factual evidence to back up the validity of the claims, rumors like these can still hurt a brand’s reputation if left unaccounted for.
According to Izquierdo, a good brand management tip for organizations is to be proactive and try to stop rumors in their tracks. To do this, companies need to have members of their team actively monitoring social media, looking for comments about products that tend to repeat over and over again and becoming aware if there’s a ‘drumbeat’ starting up about your organization online.
Wayfair chose to remain silent on the false allegations and let media outlets like USA Today speak for them. This, however, is not always the best tactic, according to Izquierdo, because it is important for organizations to go on record and set it straight – especially since information tends to get resurrected on social media.
Years ago, photos of Jimmy John Liautaud, former CEO of the gourmet sandwich chain of the same name, hit the web showcasing him hunting big game, which he promptly addressed. Every few years, these same photos resurface and statements are made once again that he no longer partakes in big game hunting. The acquisition of new followers and audiences and the cycle of information on social media, Izquierdo says, means that no news stays buried, so it’s important to set the record straight and keep setting the record straight.
Another important tip on brand management Izquierdo shares is to stay alert on the types of reactions your content is receiving.
“It’s not always a matter of being tone-deaf,” says Izquierdo. “Sometimes we put out content and it doesn’t have the intended reaction, so we have to be listening and monitoring that kind of stuff because as an organization, we don’t want our audience to be saying something and we’re not paying attention.”
Motrin, the pain relief medicine brand, faced a similar situation back in 2008 when it pushed out a short video suggesting that mothers carry their babies as a fashion accessory and then experience back pain. The video was immediately met with harsh criticism online from women who felt the clip painted motherhood in a negative light, so Johnson and Johnson was quick to take it down.
Other tips Izquierdo shares are to be authentic, transparent and willing to make tough or uncomfortable decisions like cutting ties with members of the organization if it’s for the betterment of the company.
“The most important thing is to be upfront if something like this happens,” adds Izquierdo. “Crises are inevitable and baked into the lifecycle of an organization because organizations are made up of humans and humans make mistakes. So, we have to know how to deal with those mistakes.”