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Online Damage Control

More and more Japanese food company executives are keeping a close eye on social media after seeing consumer complaints go viral during a recent spate of food scares. And it's forcing the executives to remodel the way they respond.

McDonald's Japan recently faced a barrage of criticism over several incidents involving foreign objects found in food. Consumers took to the Internet to vent their anger.

In December, an instant-noodle maker came under fire after a consumer posted on Twitter a picture of a cockroach in a cup of noodles.

The incident immediately trended, generating more than 20-thousand tweets in 24 hours. Two days later the company announced a recall, but the damage was already done.

The widespread use of online social networks is forcing Japanese businesses to change how they deal with customer complaints.

Ryo Kuwae is senior manager at a firm that offers online monitoring services. He stresses the need for a speedy response. "The first step is to become aware of any event within approximately 3 hours," he says. "Then it's important to react with a first press release within 24 hours."

More and more companies are asking for Kuwae for help. Since December, the number of companies expressing their interest has more than tripled. Most of them are food makers.

Some businesses are changing their internal protocols. At a confectionery company, the crisis management team is reviewing an incident that took place two years ago. Again, it all began on Twitter, when a user claimed to have found a live insect in a piece of chocolate. Instead of a conventional press release, PR managers decided to respond on the same platform. They focused exclusively on factual information. The chocolate had left the factory 6 months earlier. The live insect appeared to be 30 to 40 days old. The contradiction was obvious, and the online chatter subsided within hours. "I think the best aspect of our response is that we focused on the facts," a member of the team says. "We didn't look for an excuse or try to pin the blame on someone else."

Gone are the days of lengthy discussions, followed by a statement or a press conference. In a country known for its rigid protocol, the new keywords for crisis management in Japan are swiftness and flexibility.

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