At times, even General Mills can't tame the online beast

  • Article by: ERIC WIEFFERING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2011 - 9:57 PM

U.S. companies will spend more than $1 billion on social media marketing this year. They will employ all manner of digital technology to try to deepen their relationships with customers, including bombarding us with tweets and imploring us at every turn to like them.

And then they will be reminded, when they least expect it, that the most carefully curated online profile can be undone with the click of a send button.

Target learned that the hard way last year, when a political contribution backfired and resulted in an online boycott campaign. The backlash came after it was revealed that the retailer had donated $150,000 to a Republican candidate for Minnesota governor who was opposed to gay marriage. Protesters created a Facebook page that at one point drew almost 60,000 fans.

General Mills faced a similar situation last week, as it scrambled to respond to online news and blog accounts about its decision to pull its advertising from a television show that had drawn the ire of conservative activist groups.

The dustup began after the Florida Family Association declared that it had persuaded General Mills to pull its advertising from the ABC Family channel's show, "Pretty Little Liars." The conservative activist group had lambasted the show, whose lead characters include several teenage girls who are lesbians, for its "homosexual propaganda and explicitly immoral content."

The FFA even had an Aug. 16 e-mail from Jeff Hagen, General Mills' director of consumer services. He assured the FFA that General Mills' ads would no longer appear on "Pretty Little Liars," and thanked the FFA "for bringing this to our attention." The FFA published the e-mail under the headline, "General Mills says NO to Pretty Little Liars lesbian content."

Before long, the word boycott was in the air, or at least in the echo chamber that is the blogosphere. And that's a universe General Mills, like many big companies, courts heavily. Even as the crisis was breaking last week, General Mills wined and dined nearly two dozen handpicked bloggers from around the country, treating them to an all-expenses-paid tour of its Green Giant operations in Le Sueur, Minn., a Lake Minnetonka cruise and dinner at an upscale Minneapolis restaurant.

Not surprisingly, many of those bloggers reciprocated with glowing posts under headlines such as: Green Giant is amazing.

The FFA news suggested less than amazing behavior by a company with a longstanding and widely lauded benefits policy that includes same-sex domestic partners. "Pretty Little Liars" has been cited along with several other ABC Family shows by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination for its positive portrayal of young adults who are gay.

Before the situation could get out of hand, General Mills swung into crisis communications mode. Over the weekend, the FFA posted a new e-mail from Hagen that suggested his original one had been "misinterpreted," and that the company does not make advertising placement decisions "based on the sexual orientation of characters."

At General Mills' request, the FFA even scrubbed the word "lesbian" from its original headline.

"We won't usually do something like that," FFA founder David Caton said. "But we really respect General Mills' responsible advertising policies, and over the years Jeff has been very responsive to our concerns."

General Mills says it had already decided to stop advertising on the show by the time FFA contacted it. The company said its decision had nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the characters, but was made after analyzing the show's shifting demographics and a story line about an intimate relationship between a high school teacher and his female student.

The mistake in its response to the FFA, said Tom Forsythe, General Mills' vice president of corporate communications, was not explaining the reason for the decision. "By leaving it out, we created the opportunity for misinterpretation," he said.

Forsythe worked through the weekend to contact bloggers and explain the company's decision, and to respond to questions and concerns from employees and customers.

He seemed most surprised that, given the company's longstanding track record as a good corporate citizen, some people won't take him at his word.

On the company's blog he lamented that, "Unfortunately, the world is a place where the truth is not always believed, especially on the Internet."

ericw@startribune.com • 612-673-1736

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