A man in the Syracuse area has alleged that a Price Chopper rep contacted his friend's employer and requested "disciplinary action be taken" against his friend because of a negative comment the friend made about the supermarket chain on Twitter.
This story is so odd -- and outrageous -- that we met it with great skepticism when we encountered it late Monday afternoon. But as the story quickly spread across the web Monday night, large parts of it appear to be true.
The circulation of this story starts with Anthony Rotolo, a professor in Syracuse University's School of Information studies. Here's how he describes the situation on a Tumblr blog called "Price Chopper Fail", which he set up specifically for this topic (emphasis added):
Last week, Price Chopper, a grocery store chain in the Northeast, went against all established best practices of social media (and basic human decency), after they received this negative tweet from a customer [includes screengrab of tweet, which we've embedded below].
(Note: I've chosen to remove the name of the twitter user, although the tweet was posted publicly. Read on and you will understand why.)
After receiving this complaint, Price Chopper's public relations team did the unthinkable -- they contacted the customer's employer (which was mentioned in their twitter bio) requesting disciplinary action be taken against the individual for their negative post!
Although Price Chopper did reply to the customer directly, they did not wait for a response before dragging the individual's employer into the mix. In an email addressed to a seemingly random list of executives at the customer's workplace, including the customer's supervisor, Price Chopper labeled the individual as destructive and negative. They suggested that this individual's distaste for their stores could jeopardize the relationship between Price Chopper and the company where the individual is employed, and they requested action be taken against the individual.
Rotolo writes that he didn't link to the tweet or name his friend because of concerns about the friend's job. And he writes that, as a professor who teaches students about social media, he's treating the story as a "teachable moment."
After picking through old tweets, we found the tweet in question.
It was posted from an account tagged with the name Jonathan Hoster, whose bio now reads: "President of SU Alumni Club of CNY who bleeds orange. Working on master's in literacy education. Passions are education, Phillies, & Rita's!" (No mention of his employer -- though Hoster's LinkedIn profile and this phone directory indicate he works in admissions at Syracuse University. )
This story is an extraordinary claim, so we contacted Price Chopper rep Ameerah Cetawayo about it Monday afternoon (via a Twitter direct message). She responded quickly that she had just heard about it and was looking into the story. She followed up Monday night, indicating that she had responded on Rotolo's Tumblr site. Her response from the site, in full:
Hello - I want to take this opportunity to accept full responsibility for this situation. I am the Price Chopper employee who triggered this chain of events. I've worked in the public relations department at the company for the last two months and I saw the negative tweets and responded through my personal twitter account. This is not the way that Price Chopper normally handles critical comments on Twitter or other social media. What should have happened is that our consumer insights team (the team headed by Heidi Reale) would have directly contacted the customer who had an issue or concern through a Price Chopper twitter account and worked to either resolve it or provide some explanation.
I took matters into my own hands. And though well-intentioned, I clearly went over the line - without the knowledge of our consumer insights people or my direct supervisor, the Vice President of Public Relations and Consumer and Marketing Services. I was trying to understand and engage a disgruntled customer and clearly lost sight of my goal.
I appreciate having this forum to apologize to the individual who made the initial complaint and to make sure that all concerned understand that these actions were not the policy of Price Chopper nor does the company condone them. I made a mistake which will help me grow and, hopefully, further assist Price Chopper in our efforts to better utilize social media to engage our customers.
It appears this is the original response on Twitter to which Cetawayo is referring. It reads:
@PJASchultz @jjhoster @JPedde Now tell me what you really think about us. lol. When was the last time you visited a store?
Not addressed in the Tumblr comment is whether Cetawayo actually contacted the man's employer -- and if so, why she took it that far. We've followed up with her on this point and we're awaiting a response.
Cetawayo's comment on the Rotolo Tumblr was followed shortly thereafter by this comment, under the name Heidi Reale (who, in an earlier comment, identifies herself as Price Chopper's director of consumer insights):
Anthony, We have looked into this situation and it does appear that one of our associates did take it upon herself to attempt to engage with this customer as well as the employer using her own twitter account as well as e-mails without the knowledge or consent of Price Chopper.
She wanted to make an apology, which is published below in your comments, because she feels terrible about how she handled this customer service opportunity and wanted to take personal responsibility for this mistake.
Price Chopper also would like to apologize for this associate's interaction with the customer as this is not how we handle customer concerns. Typically, the concerns or the praise come to us via phone, e-mail, facebook, twitter and blogs. We work hard to personally respond as Price Chopper to every concern that comes directly our way. We do not condone any of our associates reaching out to our customers' employers as it appears happened in this case.
We are currently working with our associate to coach and counsel her so that she can learn and grow from this mistake. Price Chopper will continue to address all customer concerns regarding our stores and our associates in a personal and professional manner.
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this unfortunate incident.
Heidi Reale Director of Consumer Insights
As Cetawayo mentions in her response, she's new to Price Chopper. Prior to joining the supermarket chain's PR department, she was a business reporter for the Daily Gazette.
Late Monday night, Price Chopper's main Twitter account was responding to the situation, indicating that the company has emailed Hoster to apologize:
@PJASchultz We have e-mailed the customer with an apology and an invitation to speak directly with us. Awaiting a response from him.
@PJASchultz We will take all appropriate actions to repair the trust that has been compromised with this situation.
The public reaction
This story has since spread around the web (we noticed it after getting referral traffic from a link to AOA posted in the Tumblr blog comment thread). A link to it was tweeted Monday afternoon by Chris Brogan, a social media consultant with more than 150,000 followers (his comment: "Hmm. Price Chopper might've handled this differently, methinks"). It's been the subject of many other tweets. And it has since has been discussed on a handful of social media blogs. And, of course, it's generated a bunch of critical comments on the "Price Chopper Fail" Tumblr.
There are still a few questions hanging out there about this situation, including what -- if any -- connection does Hoster's employer's have to Price Chopper and what Cetawayo actually requested of the employer. (Rotolo has posted an update indicating that there is no connection between the supermarket and Hoster's employer.) But the biggest question in all this is... why?
Criticizing Price Chopper for not being Wegmans is a rather old complaint. And to respond in this way to the comment -- and, really, any comment -- is just bizarre.
Update: Price Chopper posted this in its official Twitter feed Tuesday morning:
We want to make sure you know we welcome all concerns, praise and suggestions. That is how we make our shopping experience even better.
Earlier on AOA: Wegmans & Price Chopper: the real deal
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