May 13, 2011

Facebook Flap Puts Girl Scouts In Center of Controversy

Screenshot of the Girl Scouts of the USA's response to the campaign on Facebook.

Girl Scouts of the USA found itself at the center of a social-media controversy this month when the Rainforest Action Network, an environmental group, used Facebook to protest the group’s use of an ingredient in the cookies it sells to raise money.

The controversy began last fall when two Girl Scouts–Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen–informed the Rainforest Action Network that the cookies contain palm oil. Some environmental advocates say that palm oil production contributes to the destruction of rainforests that serve as the habitat for orangutans.

The Girl Scouts say the palm oil used in its cookies is obtained in an environmentally friendly way from organizations that belong to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. But the Rainforest Action Network says that certification means little.

To call attention to the issue, the organization, along with, encouraged its supporters to take part in a social-media action day that took aim at the Girl Scouts sections on social networks and encouraged Girl Scout alumnae, particularly alumna like Katie Couric and Reese Witherspoon, to participate.

The Reaction

That morning more than 150 posts from the campaign appeared on the Girl Scouts Facebook wall. After consulting with its lawyers, the group decided to delete the comments and turn off the ability for followers to post comments on the page’s wall.

The organization also posted a response to the palm oil complaint and the next day reminded followers of its social-media policy, which included a note that “excessive posting will not be tolerated.”

“People were not posting original comments, they were sending repetitive links that proved to be spam,” said Michelle Tompkins, the Girl Scouts media manager. “There is a forum topic on palm oil, and that’s still there. As long as people comment on the appropriate thread, they’re fine.”

Ms. Tompkins said the organization was particularly concerned about hostile remarks and the experience of the people who follow its page.

The Results

More than 400 comments have since been posted on the organization's response about palm oil and another 66 on the reminder about the organization's social-media guidelines. The threads in the discussion boards are still there, with at least one follower asking others to stop posting and find another way to protest.

Patti Giglio, a crisis-communications consultant who works with large nonprofits, said she understands the organization's decision to close its Facebook wall but would have advised the group not to delete the comments and to have more of a dialogue.

“Social media has a benefit and a vulnerability, and you really can’t have it both ways,” she said.

Rainforest Action Network says it considers the campaign a success.

“The social-media day of action was wildly successful because it allows us to access so many more people and generate more voices to contact Girl Scouts of the USA than our e-mail list,” said Ashley Schaeffer, rainforest agribusiness campaigner for the Rainforest group.

Amanda Hamaker, manager of product sales for the Girl Scouts who works with the companies that make Girl Scout cookies, said the organization stands by the palm-oil certification and the choices of its bakers.

“We feel that we are really part of something positive,” she said about the certification.

Has your organization ever been the target of an organized campaign online? How did you respond? How would you have responded to this situation?