When Brands Get Bullied

When Brands Get BulliedThe Internet loves a good crisis. It thrives on the conflict, the emotionally charged arguments, the perception that some innocent person was maligned and mistreated by a big brand with social media fanning the flames – and the reality is that you’ll never hear about a well-managed issue. So what happens when the brand is the one getting bullied?

Enter the case of high-end Manhattan steakhouse Smith & Wollensky. The restaurant is suffering the blows of social media backlash after it had a customer arrested and charged with theft of services. Italian attorney Graziano Graziussi racked up a $208 tab at Smith & Wollensky, only to discover that he had had forgotten his wallet and reportedly offered up his smartphone as collateral so he could return to his hotel, retrieve his wallet, and settle his tab.

Rather than allow Grazziussi to retrieve his wallet and resolve the matter, Smith & Wollensky staff opted to call the police and have his arrested – or so the story goes.

When news began circulating about the restaurant’s apparent bad faith decision to treat a regular customer as a criminal, the brand took a beating across social media. Its Yelp page was targeted by vigilante-style negative reviews, its Facebook page flooded with comments of people offering their support for Grazziussi and publicly lambasting the restaurant staff’s decision.

The story has all the characteristics of a classic brand “oops”: a customer reputedly wronged by a brand that has ostensibly lost touch with its customers, an antagonistic social media response, and a quickly escalating crisis scenario. The problem? A few critical details were missing from the initial report – details that completely turn the tables.

NYPD Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said that the 43-year-old lawyer from Naples did have a wallet containing $118 at the time of his arrest, but simply didn’t want to pay for his tab.

Smith & Wollensky learned an uncomfortable lesson: social media can be unfair. Information and misinformation moves quickly, and people react strongly to perceived wrongs. Social media tends to self-correct rather quickly, but it’s important for businesses to know that doing the right thing can be a social media liability, as counterintuitive as that sounds.

The power of any brand can – and will – weather social media tar and feathering and negative criticisms. By focusing on core customer experiences, businesses will strengthen their brand experience, and that is far stronger and more meaningful than the hot and fast burn of many social media crises.

Has your brand been bullied before? How did you handle the situation, and what was the outcome?