Earlier this week news broke of another embarrassing Twitter mishap. Not a luddite politician or foot-in-mouth pop star this time, but the giant US food processor Heinz.

Earlier this week news broke of another embarrassing Twitter mishap. Not a luddite politician or foot-in-mouth pop star this time, but the giant US food processor Heinz.

A Barcelona-based Twitter user (@mrkhndy) began tweeting as ‘Heinz’. At first this was done in a gently humourous but positive way. However, once Heinz wheeled out the legal big guns to try and remove the unwanted guest, the cheeky tweeter turned nasty and unleashed a tirade of – still humorous – negativity against the brand.

So, what does a retailer do when faced with such tactics? Looking at this example, one might suggest that it’s a bad idea to get too legalistic (the account has now been suspended). But what else can be done? Does one just let the trolls run riot? Of course not.

Retailers need to understand two things when it comes to Twitter – their brand’s ‘ecosystem’ and the nature of social media.

Twitter houses lots of different people and their different needs and desires. There are friends, acquaintances and strangers.

Some people shout their news for all to hear, others whisper quietly. Either way, conversations are overheard, stories are shared, people log in and out.

You don’t have to use Twitter but once you’re in there, you’re part of the conversation, whether you like it or not – and whilst this sounds simple it is of paramount importance retailers realise this.

They also need to be aware of their brand ecosystem – the sum of the countless micro-interactions that happen all over the world, in the street, in the pub, in the mainstream media and on the web – in simple terms, conversations about them between real people.

To be successful they must listen to the conversations and engage. They need to do this quickly to create conversations around topics and new experiences. If they stop contributing in social media terms then become more open to attack.

As Heinz found out a brand can be damaged rapidly online by just one individual and if this is not addressed this damage can be significant and wide-ranging.

In order to combat such online reputation attacks retailers must be alive to any threats out there, constantly monitoring the Twittersphere.

Should they fall victim to potentially damaging criticism I would suggest retailers seek to make friends with their cheeky rival rather than starting a fight. After all, that would only make the situation worse.

  • Paul Shields is senior strategist at global branding agency 1HQ