In the evening of July 29, Chandarana Foodplus, a 59-year-old independent chain of supermarkets, was not a focus of many social media users. With less than 4,000 followers on Twitter, Chandarana’s social media presence was dwarfed by Tuskys Supermarket and troubled Nakumatt Supermarkets with over 22,400 and 113,000 followers respectively. None of its posts in July had attracted more than five responses.
But a leaked email from Rima Patel, who the retailer described as a recent hire in its marketing department, broke the silence of hundreds of social media users. “We are delighted to inform you that our supermarket chain would like to give you free vouchers... As we are now focusing on white people to attract our supermarkets,” part of the email read.
Within a day many social media users had judged and condemned Chandarana as a racist retailer, forcing it to issue a public apology over what it termed as a “horrendous error.”
“The immense magnitude of this error undoubtedly comes to us as a severe embarrassment and all the apologies in the world cannot make such a wrong a right again,” wrote the retailer on its Twitter account at the peak of the public court’s wrath.
Such has become the business environment for many companies, forcing them to create and bolster their social media communication teams to handle round-the-clock public scrutiny.
This is heightened for financial institutions, especially after the Central Bank of Kenya blamed the collapse of Chase Bank in 2016 to “malicious rumour” on social media leading to Sh8 billion bank run in under one day.
Mid-tier lender Family bank also suffered social media attack that saw customer deposits shrink by Sh12.4 billion between March and September 2016. This was however corrected as it moved to reassure customers.
Its CEO David Thuku said that almost anyone on social media comes off as an authority, especially in their small circles, making it easy for the platforms to sway opinion.
He urged banks to focus on social media engagements to address new-age customer demands.
“We keep moving away from ‘brick and mortar’ to digital technology and this means that even staffing is moving away from traditional channels of serving customers. We want good communicators than never before,” he said. Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) said it retrains its employees on social media best practice and arms them with information on new trends after every three months.
With over 266,000 followers on Twitter and 1.1 million on Facebook, the lender has increased its social media team to 15, up from 10 in 2016.
Two people have been tasked to generate witty content every morning to activate engagement with customers.
“We have a team that actively monitors brand sentiments through the day using social media management tools that flag when the brand suddenly receives increased mentions on social media,” said Judith Odhiambo, KCB Head of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs.
Ms Odhiambo said that the team also monitors all online sites to check on sentiments and potential crisis situations.
This, unlike before, she added, requires staff with clear and precise communication skills, extensive knowledge of bank products and services and with a good sense of humour.
Barclays Bank of Kenya (BBK) #ticker:BBK said that social media has redefined communication, forcing it to team up with third party publishers and influencers.
According to Alex Muriu, a digital and innovations manager at BBK, the communication team must have a publisher’s mindset to interact with it’s over 95,000 audience on Twitter and over 0.3 million followers on Facebook.
The launch of Timiza app, for mobile loans, has seen users grow fivefold forcing the lender to hire more staff with skills on new media.
“We have had to revamp our social care unit to cater 24/7 for needs of digital customers who could be trying to get a loan at midnight and need instant support,” explained Mr Muriu.
According to Mathieu Plassard, CEO of Ogilvy Africa, a communications agency, the social media age has challenged brands to be “always on”, with immediate feedback to customers.
“Social media has ensured that content churned out is creative and of very high standard with a specific goal. Sending out messages that are incoherent tends to receive negative feedback and in turn make the brand look bad,” he said.
The pressure of fast-paced social media engagements has forced firms to create new positions. Corporates now have posts such as brand digital managers, digital public relations communicators, digital media buyers and social media strategists. “A key role that has strongly emerged is that of influencers or key voices online who drive conversations and shape perceptions,” he said.
Liberty Life Kenya General Manager for Marketing and Communications Mercy Kabangi attested to this. The insurer has created the position of Social Media Officers and sponsors them for training regularly. “This role was created to provide a vital link between our customers, the communications team and our back office operations. We empowered them with tools such as TweetDeck and Hootsuite which allow for real-time and historical monitoring of sentiment around our brand,” she explained.
Liberty has also developed social media policy to provide guidelines to staff on how to handle complaints, queries and any crisis that may arise.