How NOT to Handle Social Media Moderation (The Smucker’s Case)

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by Jennifer Williams

Back in 2014, Smucker’s handling of Social Media moderation made some headlines, and enraged some of their customers and followers.

The short story is that Smucker’s, following its own Social Media guidelines attempted to silence dissenting comments about Smucker’s GMO labeling policies by simply removing any question or criticism shared in comments on their Facebook page.

This quickly escalated into a backlash. People refused to be silenced (as people will do) and stepped up efforts to get their comments and feedback seen, as well as calling for a boycott of the company. 

Smuckers survived, of course, but could the mess have been avoided, or even been turned into a positive?

Social Media Moderation is About Opportunity as Much as Damage Control

Often companies take a crisis avoidance approach to Social Media policies that allow little room for on-the-fly assessment of opportunity.  Here is a section of Smuckers Community Guidelines from their Facebook page:

Respectful: We embrace the power of each individual. We look for a diverse collection of thoughts, ideas, and opinions, all with a sense of humor and good will. Content that includes discrimination, political commentary, cultural insensitivity, or defamation has no place here.

Looks good, right? Seems as though Smuckers is seeking to create a safe, fun space for their fans that looks something like this. 

Smuckers Social Media.jpg

That’s a noble effort, but that little bit about “political commentary” could be conveniently, and arguably, incorrectly used to try to silence dissenters of the brand, resulting in the escalation and backlash we witnessed a year ago. 

It’s also likely included in the guidelines as an avoidance strategy. Avoidance isn’t necessarily a bad strategy, but it can create a rigid stance that instigates, rather than avoids, the very type of escalation the policy hoped to avert. 

When Guidelines Don’t Prevent Escalation, Be Ready to Pivot

Rules and guidelines don’t always protect a brand from negative escalation.

Responding to escalation is tricky business, but not impossible with the right people at the helm of your Social Media management. Clear policies and regular moderation are an excellent foundation, but empowered people with high social intelligence on the frontlines of response are key.

In Smucker’s case, this was a particularly nasty predicament as they were on the wrong side of GMO policies according to some of their customers and/or detractors – an issue that inspires activist passion and for many reasons may not be easily remedied. The debate about GMO labeling notwithstanding, sometimes your company isn’t going to agree with, or be able to meet customer or the public’s demands. At least not right away. What then?

Showing that you’re listening is often enough in the moment. Simply responding with, “Thank you for bringing this up. Can you tell us more about why this is an important issue to you?” is going to have an immediate effect of calming a situation, giving the company time to assess how they can and want to make changes.

Reminding the community of policies rather than just implementing them silently helps you not look like a jerk. Attempting to silence people without explanation makes them angry. Combining the response above with a gentle reminder of community guidelines will help fans feel comfortable with the moderation. In cases of passionate topics, polite reminders are not enough, so creating space and opportunity for their voice elsewhere is an important step in the process. 

Intelligent synthesis between moderation and response requires real-time observation and assessment to determine the right response given the context of the situation. In other words, be ready to pivot rather than blindly follow policies that cannot prevent every potential escalation and blocks opportunity.

Of course, it goes without saying that all of the above works best when backed by authenticity.

Jennifer Williams is a Marketing Behaviorist at, building lean marketing strategies based on consumer and decision science.

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