An 80-year old woman convinced Tyson Foods that it should take the plunge into the world of social media.
Well, it’s not quite that simple, but to hear Tyson Foods veteran Ed Nicholson tell the story, his mother’s opening of a Facebook account convinced him that the world’s largest food company was ready to make a full-fledged leap into the new media frontier. Tyson Foods had embraced aspects of new media in a variety of ways for about three years before Nicholson’s mom opened that Facebook account, but her ascent was definitely a sign that the world was changing.
"I figured it had reached critical mass when I saw that," Nicholson tells Talk Business on a drive back from Iowa in late July.
Today, the Springdale-based food giant has an active blog, as well as Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube accounts. Those forums allow Tyson to respond to its critics while pushing a philanthropic message of hunger relief.
Nicholson, who has been with Tyson Foods since 1995, has headed up the company’s community relations for the last five years. He saw the opportunity to utilize social media tools to spread the humanitarian mission of Tyson more than use it as a direct marketing channel to move food products.
Nicholson explains that many of Tyson’s local U.S. operations have always been very active in community affairs.
"We were doing a lot of good things, but nothing in a real focused way," he said. "So when we did some assessment, hunger relief kind of rose to the top."
Tyson Foods donates 8 to 10 million pounds of chicken, beef and pork a year to charities. It works through local groups, but also has major relationships with national food relief organizations like Share Our Strength and Feed America.
Nicholson says that the rise of social media – like Facebook and Twitter – during the past few years led to his experimentation.
"I started following some bloggers in the public relations industry," he said. "In late 2007, we decided we would put up a site focusing on hunger relief. We knew we wanted to try to help the very active hunger relief community come together online."
It appears to be working.
Through several of Tyson’s social media channels one might find a news story from Missouri on a local hunger relief agency’s work to reach low-income children. Another post helps promote a Connecticut food bank’s efforts to raise $10,000. Yet another commenter encourages more than 6,400 "followers" to prod Congress to reauthorize a child nutrition measure led by Arkansas U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln.
There was little apprehension on Tyson’s part to allow Nicholson to experiment in these new arenas. "I was in a position of having been a company spokesperson for awhile, so there was some trust that I wouldn’t go on the record and say or do something that might get us in trouble," he said.
The social media investments have paid additional dividends for Tyson besides promoting hunger relief. The company can monitor customer and community concerns about its image and it uses the new tools to rebut negative public relations when warranted.
New age and traditional tools could come in handy as the company battles critics on topics ranging from immigration to food labeling to business practices with local farmers or faraway foreign markets.
Recently, a "tweet" distributed from a user known as MoxPowers caught Nicholson’s attention. It read:
"Can’t wait to be done with this bag of @TysonFoods chicken so I can move on to something from a company that isn’t so evil."
Nicholson used the company blog to rebut the post. He cited his work in Iowa last week for a cross-state bicycle race that raises money for hunger relief efforts.
"I don’t know what prompted the comment (at least it appeared she was going to eat the chicken). But I wish she could have been with me the last three days," he wrote.
"You see, ‘Tyson Foods’ isn’t a cloistered few who control the puppet strings of shadowy empire. It’s 117,000 people all around the world. And since Sunday, I’ve been with some of the best in the world. People from Tyson operations in Nebraska and Iowa who’ve volunteered their time to come out in the Iowa July heat to cook and sell food to riders in the annual RAGBRAI event. And donate the proceeds to hunger relief."
Nicholson’s move immediately answered the criticism to a universe of folks who have seen first hand the company’s efforts and sincerity in working to advance its hunger relief agenda.
"It’s really important to monitor the activity in these channels because things can happen quickly," says Nicholson.
He adds that generally he doesn’t respond to critics unless there are blatant inaccuracies or misinformation. Nicholson also contends that the influence a single person might have with their negativity is a consideration.
"Within these channels, you need to consider the size of the audience," he said.
The move by companies like Tyson to engage in the social media world shakes up the age-old formula for normal public relations.
In traditional PR channels, a member of the media would have had to pick up on the critical post and then ask the company for a response. There’s no telling where the negative commentary would have gone before company officials recognized it.
But with Nicholson’s and Tyson’s use of media, they were in control. They also were able to rapidly respond within minutes to what they perceived as unfounded criticism.
Even with this empowerment, however, Nicholson contends he has less control.
"The rules are constantly being rewritten, but I feel as though there is a real need for companies to have relationships and that’s what these channels are about."
Tyson Foods Hunger Relief blog