Oct. 20, 2010 -- It all started with a simple tweet from a grocery store aisle last month.
"Every time I go to @PriceChopperNY I realize why they r not @wegmans . Tonight -bare produce areas & this sign 4 ex http://yfrog.com/2tfj9sj" tweeted @jjhoster, a disappointed Price Chopper customer in Syracuse, N.Y.
In his tweet, Jonathan Hoster, a senior admission officer at Syracuse University, had included a picture of Price Chopper's aisle 10 which houses baking supplies, cooking oils, kitchen gadgets, pie fillings, syrups and ? trash bags. It's mildly amusing, but a public relations specialist at Price Chopper didn't find it funny.
Price Chopper employee Ameerah Cetawayo sent a reply to Hoster from her personal Twitter account. And she didn't stop there -- she also e-mailed Hoster's employer from her official corporate e-mail address with accusations that the customer was "destructive and negative."
And this is where the firestorm erupted. For the next week, @PriceChopperNY received angry and disappointed @mentions from Twitter users everywhere for their poor use of social media.
"Wow, can't believe @PriceChopperNY would do this - attacks customer and notifies his employer over a negative tweet - http://bit.ly/b6LPT7," @Jdross, a New Media Director at Hamilton College, tweeted just hours after the incident took place. Holster told ABCNews.com he cannot comment on the incident.
Professor Anthony Rotolo, the main social media strategist at Syracuse University, is a strong advocate of "good social media practices" and a friend of Hoster. He was outraged by the social media faux pas.
"As a social media user and human being, I am horrified," Rotolo wrote in his blog, "Price Chopper Attacks Customer's Job Over Negative Tweet: pricechopperfail."
But instead of sending an angry e-mail to the company in defense of his friend, Rotolo took his concerns to cyberspace, posting this invitation on his blog: pricechopperfail.
"Although Price Chopper's actions cannot be excused, I believe they should be discussed as a learning opportunity," Rotolo posted. "I invite readers to comment and engage in an open dialogue about this issue ? and I invite the people at Price Chopper to explain themselves."
And Price Chopper took Rotolo up on his offer.
Taking it to the Classroom
In a classroom equipped with two projector screens, a Smartboard and a row of mounted flat screen TVs, four Price Chopper representatives took their places. Jerry Golub, President and Chief Operating Officer, and Heidi Reale, Director of Consumer Insights, led the discussion. Nearly 50 people gathered in the classroom and possibly hundreds more gathered online on Rotolo's "Live Tweet Chat" to tune into the event.
For an hour and a half the students, professors and the Price Chopper representatives discussed the details of the debacle.
"We would never condone what this one employee did," Reale said. "It goes against everything we stand for ... It was an associate who went rogue."
At the time of the incident, Reale said that Price Chopper's social media policy explicitly forbade the actions of the associate. For the immediate hours and days following the event, Reale did damage control.
"@jdross We had no knowledge of this situation & are looking into what may have transpired," Reale tweeted back to @jdross who was the first Twitter user to bring this situation to Price Chopper's attention. "Please see our comments here http://bit.ly/8ZCZPJ."
Social media gurus commented on Rotolo's blog during the immediate days following the event, but as Rotolo had hoped, his open discussion engaged a key contributor:
"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," Cetawayo posted on Rotolo's blog. "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."
Cetawayo, however, was not present at the discussion at SU. And due to company policy, Reale could only comment that "Price Chopper took corrective action both with our social media policy and with the associate." She said she could not discuss specific actions taken.
Developing Social Media Etiquette
In addition to discussing the conflict, the group also touched on how social media is changing the way people get information.
"Once [information] gets out there, you can't stop it," Reale said to the crowd. "There was a lot of misinformation out there. And security had to be raised in our stores in Syracuse because it became like a lynch mob."
In many ways, the discussion brought up more questions than answers.
"How do you draw the line between employees representing the company on their personal social media accounts and yet not running your employees' lives?" one student asked.
"That is a great question," Reale said. "I don't think there's an answer to that yet."
With social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare dominating cyberspace, profiles showcasing people's personal and professional lives are becoming more difficult to maintain.
As Golub said in today's discussion, "Social media is changing our business. You get the good, the bad and the ugly."
But what started out as an ugly conflict emerged into an open discussion of understanding.
"I think it's awesome that [Price Chopper is] a part of this discussion," Rotolo said at the end of the event. "No company is going to make every customer happy, and I think Price Chopper understands that." And many of the students left satisfied as well. Alyssa Henry, 22, is a Masters student studying Information Management at SU's iSchool and has been following the Price Chopper fall-out since it began.
"Where I thought [this discussion] was lacking was Price Chopper taking responsibility for that employee ? but overall I think they did a great job," Henry said. "I really respect Price Chopper for coming.
Reale said this recent incident has contributed to an expansion of their social media presence.
"Last month we gained about 500 Twitter followers," she said.
And as of now, sales seem to be unaffected. "There is no indication that there's been any loss in customers or market share due to this associate's behavior," Reale said.