Putting it mildly, this hasn’t been a great week for Australian department store David Jones. There was the profit downgrade, followed by a slump in the company’s value on the Australian stock market, and then there was the social media attack directed against them that followed. The social media attack wasn’t, however, directly related to their profit nor value downturns, but rather related to the comments from the company’s CEO as to the root cause of David Jones’ problems. In short, David Jones’ CEO Paul Zahra shifted the blame of the problems from the company itself to the economic uncertainty in Australia. Of course, any Australian high street retailer doing it tough in the current market has more than the economy to blame: they suddenly have unprecedented competition courtesy of online retail; but the truth of the matter is that there is a down turn in consumer confidence in Australia, one that is impacting upon David Jones.

Those behind the social media outcry were having none of it, and many took to Facebook and Twitter to vent their opinion (or anger, as it often seemed to be the case). Some comments were consumer focussed and cited poor service or high prices, others were politically motivated. What was most striking about the latter was the common language, the common rare phrases and names. While inconclusive, it did make the outcry appear to be a concentrated attack against the retailer in a very public forum.

Campaigning against a retailer is nothing, but it’s largely been an in-person activity. But with the growth of social media it’s going to slowly transition online. So what should David Jones have done to respond? And what should other stores learn from it – after all, any retailer that has a large profile is one day going to be attacked as well.

david jones carbon tax

Respond, and quickly.

The first thing David Jones should have done: dealt with the attack quicker. Social media is often considered viral for a reason: trending topics on it grow and often quickly. With their Facebook fan wall being deluged with comments all day, it took David Jones till 4pm in the afternoon to respond. And when they did, they did so with a simple note and a simple comment – both of which are a perfectly fine initial response. But David Jones needed to act quicker.

Speak human.

When they did respond on Facebook, David Jones turned to a short, simple statement. The sort one might issue to the press, not to fans and detractors on Facebook. Faced with overwhelming opposition on any form of social media, David Jones should have taken the humanist approach keeping their language as open and frank as possible. Instead of publishing a note with a humanist title such as David Jones’ views on the carbon tax and our business, a title which gets to the very heart of the matter, a statement was made with the awful title of David Jones Company Annoucement (sic). Not good, and it got worse. This is the comment in its entirety, a comment wholly non-humanist in its approach:

A lot of discussion has taken place on our wall today.

For clarity the Company’s announcement yesterday stated that Sales were down in June and July due to weaker consumer sentiment. In the subsequent media conference our CEO Paul Zahra referred to the Westpac Melbourne Institute Index Consumer Confidence Report dated 13 July 2011 that stated that: “Consumer sentiment fell by 8.3% in July 2011 from June 2011…[ due to]….concerns about the European financial crisis, the ongoing impact of the seven interest rate hikes between October 2009 and November 2010, uncertainty about the introduction of a price on carbon and uncertainty about the employment outlook…”

Unfortunately this comment was taken out of context.

Address the wider issue.

Politics is a funny beast – issues are nearly always more complex than they seem. And David Jones mistakenly took the social media attack levied against them at face value: that it was about their CEO’s comments. But the attack was anything but: it was about a carbon tax and its political implications. Even if the marketing / PR people behind David Jones’ response weren’t aware of the overall appearance of it being the social attack being coordinated to some degree, they should have addressed the wider issue of a carbon tax and climate change – both of which were effectively the passion fuelling the fire. Of course, David Jones’ views on both of those topics might run contrary to the e-protestors, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be tackled head on. After all, as such a large company David Jones must be doing something that fits within the scope of the global warming debate. As such they could have issued a statement that ran in the following format:

A lot of discussion has taken place on our wall today in regards to David Jones’ comments that our sales were down in June and July as a result of weak consumer spending across Australia. Describing retail in Australia, our CEO Paul Zahra drew reference to Consumer Confidence Report from Westpac which highlighted that “uncertainty about the introduction of a price on carbon and uncertainty about the employment outlook” were contributing factors to the downturn of fashion retail in Australia. Ours included.

Unfortunately some of Paul’s comments have been taken out of context, with some people feeling that David Jones is against acting to improve the environment. Of course, that’s not the case. We respect the world which we all share and are constantly working to reduce any negative impact our company has on its environment.

And after that last sentence they should have linked out to a published environmental policy, or made a statement of fact about their efforts to recycle more, to bring more efficiency to their business, to produce less waste. Something. Anything. Anything more than the nothing they actually said. Anything to address the core issue.

Make it sticky.

Social media is full of noise. You post something on Twitter now, and it has disappeared from page one within a few minutes. That’s not always the case with Facebook: walls are slow moving. But when a social media outcry occurs that isn’t the case. So David Jones made the beginners mistake: the note they published had disappeared from their own Facebook wall in less than an hour. It was relegated to history (or page 2 of their wall, which is as good as history).

What they should have done was made the note stick by directing all new visitors to their page to it. Instead they’re currently directing visitors to a page encouraging them to enter a competition for the ‘ultimate fashion experience’. Wholly the wrong approach, and one that limits the effectiveness of their message at this critical time. Time they wasted because they didn’t address point one as they should have.

Prepare for the bumpy ride.

If you’re big, you’re a target for attack. And that’s a good thing – if no one wants to attack you, then it’s likely you’re not relevant on any level. David Jones and the fashion industry as a whole need to be better prepared to address such e-activism. That might mean a better social media policy, or it might mean working with better partners in the field. And that’s a step they need to take now. While they’re trending on Twitter and getting deluged on Facebook right now, this isn’t the last they’ll see of e-activism, and it’s something that’s going to increasingly affect the entire industry.

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