General Mills, will It be Worth It? Updated: Guess Not – Language Reversed

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Update: 4/20/2014: General Mills has reversed the language of their Legal terms.

We’ve listened – and we’re changing our legal terms back

As has been widely reported, General Mills recently posted a revised set of Legal Terms on our websites. Those terms – and our intentions – were widely misread, causing concern among consumers.

So we’ve listened – and we’re changing them back to what they were before.

We rarely have disputes with consumers – and arbitration would have simply streamlined how complaints are handled. Many companies do the same, and we felt it would be helpful.

But consumers didn’t like it.

So we’ve reverted back to our prior terms. There’s no mention of arbitration, and the arbitration provisions we had posted were never enforced. Nor will they be. We stipulate for all purposes that our recent Legal Terms have been terminated, that the arbitration provisions are void, and that they are not, and never have been, of any legal effect.

That last bit is from our lawyers.

We’ll just add that we never imagined this reaction. Similar terms are common in all sorts of consumer contracts, and arbitration clauses don’t cause anyone to waive a valid legal claim. They only specify a cost-effective means of resolving such matters. At no time was anyone ever precluded from suing us by purchasing one of our products at a store or liking one of our Facebook pages. That was either a mischaracterization – or just very misunderstood.

Not that any of that matters now.

On behalf of our company and our brands, we would also like to apologize. We’re sorry we even started down this path. And we do hope you’ll accept our apology. We also hope that you’ll continue to download product coupons, talk to us on social media, or look for recipes on our websites.

Our legal terms? You’ll find them right on our website. You’ll also find they’re back to what they always were.

– See more at: http://www.blog.generalmills.com/2014/04/weve-listened-and-were-changing-our-legal-terms-back-to-what-they-were/#sthash.Ue0YHsqy.dpuf

Original Post

What happens when a company’s messaging becomes a secondary, larger crisis than the crisis they were originally trying to head off?

A recent change to the General Mills website Privacy Policy and Legal Terms has created an uproar around the General Mills brand and products. The new policy broadly asserts that consumers interacting with the company in a variety of ways and venues can no longer sue General Mills, but must instead submit any complaint to “informal negotiation” or arbitration.

From the General Mills website in response to a NY Times article on the recent change:

“We’ve updated our Privacy Policy. Please note we also have new Legal Terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration. For more information on these changes, please click here.”

The sections in question read:

From Section 1:

1.  Your agreement to these legal terms

These terms are a binding legal agreement (“Agreement”) between you and General Mills.  In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms. 

Of course, your decision to do any of these things (i.e., to use or join our site or online community, to subscribe to our emails, to download or print a digital coupon, to enter a sweepstakes or contest, to take advantage of a promotional offer, or otherwise participate in any other General Mills offering) is entirely voluntary.  But if you choose to do any of these things, then you agree to be bound by this Agreement.

3.  Dispute resolution; binding arbitration

PLEASE READ THIS SECTION CAREFULLY.  IT AFFECTS RIGHTS THAT YOU MAY OTHERWISE HAVE.  IT PROVIDES FOR RESOLUTION OF DISPUTES THAT YOU OR GENERAL MILLS MAY HAVE WITH EACH OTHER THROUGH INDIVIDUAL ARBITRATION INSTEAD OF THROUGH COURT TRIALS, JURY TRIALS, OR CLASS ACTIONS.  ARBITRATION IS FINAL AND BINDING AND SUBJECT TO LIMITED REVIEW BY A COURT.  THIS ARBITRATION CLAUSE SHALL SURVIVE TERMINATION OF THIS AGREEMENT.

This Section 3 is intended to be interpreted broadly to encompass all disputes or claims arising out of this Agreement or your purchase or use of any General Mills product or service for personal or household use.  As noted above, “General Mills” includes any and all of General Mills’ affiliated companies or brands.  These affiliated brands include, but are not limited to, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Yoplait, Nature Valley, Old El Paso, Progresso, Hamburger Helper, Toaster Strudel Gold Medal, Bisquick, Totino’s, Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, Kix, Trix, Cocoa Puffs, Total, Wheaties, Fiber One, Chex, other General Mills Big G cereals, Box Tops For Education, and all other brands listed here

ANY DISPUTE OR CLAIM MADE BY YOU AGAINST GENERAL MILLS ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO THIS AGREEMENT OR YOUR PURCHASE OR USE OF ANY GENERAL MILLS SERVICE OR PRODUCT (INCLUDING GENERAL MILLS PRODUCTS PURCHASED AT ONLINE OR PHYSICAL STORES FOR PERSONAL OR HOUSEHOLD USE) REGARDLESS OF WHETHER SUCH DISPUTE OR CLAIM IS BASED IN CONTRACT, TORT, STATUTE, FRAUD, MISREPRESENTATION, OR ANY OTHER LEGAL THEORY (TOGETHER, A “DISPUTE”) WILL BE RESOLVED BY INFORMAL NEGOTIATIONS OR THROUGH BINDING ARBITRATION, AS DESCRIBED BELOW

Firestorm’s CAO and Attorney Suzy Loughlin asks, “Of the customers that purchase General Mills products, what percentage interact with them socially? Of the people that interact socially, are they likely to be the future plaintiffs?   Is it worth the impact on consumer loyalty and brand advocacy to cast such a wide net that is only picking up Brand Advocates? This approach serves to sweep in the very people that are your supporters.”

We have an expression at Firestorm coined by Firestorm Co-founder and CEO of Lancer Insurance Dave Delaney: “When you’re explaining you’re losing.” 

On General Mills’ own blog, their most recent update reads: “Explaining our website privacy policy and legal terms.” The explanation however, feels a bit chastising and somewhat cavalier – “We hope this helps explain what we’re doing. Because there’s a lot of misinformation out there today…” and in another section: “So that’s it. This is a policy update and an update of our legal terms, and we’ve tried to communicate it in a clear and visible way. That attracted attention, which is good actually. Because we want people to know and understand our approach. But some of the comments that followed were just incorrect.”

Through careful planning and message mapping, companies can take the necessary steps to assure that misinformation is avoided in the first place.  Planning prevents ‘explaining’.

The immediate, negative response on social media to the New York Times article has been significant.  Aside from sparking animated legal debate as to the enforceability of the broad policy, General Mills’ social accounts are being inundated with negative messaging from once staunch brand supporters.

GM1

In monitoring the General Mills brand on social media, the increase in conversation around the Brand has spiked significantly, and is trending in a decidedly negative way. A conversation map generated by Firestorm monitoring shows the focus of social chatter:

wordcloudGM

A comparison of the Conversation Map over an hour-long period shows the shift in terms with the word “False” gaining popularity.

wordcloud2

Over a 24-hour period, we also see a high of more than 4.7 million potential average daily impressions of the brand. Prior to this issue, the average was 1700.

TrendGM

These are negative impressions. General Mills must take action to regain control of the message.  By the way, as I was writing this article, potential impressions increased by 200,000.

A different point-of-view is articulated in Forbes:

“…The General Mills arbitration policy is a so-called “clickwrap” agreement that consumers theoretically agree to when they click on the company’s website for “discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings.” It requires consumers settle all disputes in binding arbitration, instead of in front of a jury. Lawyers and many judges hate such agreements, both for cynical reasons — lower legal fees — and a strongly held belief that consumers will always get the worst of a binding agreement with a powerful corporation.

But arbitration does offer some advantages over traditional litigation. Such as: No lawyer would ever take a small case against General Mills in the first place. The General Mills policy specifies a $200 filing fee, which the company waives in cases involving less than $5,000. And anybody who really wants to preserve his right of jury trial can opt out of the policy entirely by notifying General Mills in writing….”

Whether news articles present a somewhat skewed view of the new policy, or General Mills itself communicated the change poorly, the result is the same. Damage control is called for.

A key Firestorm tenet is: Effective communication is a crucial element in crisis management and should assume a central role in preparedness and response.

For General Mills to move forward effectively, the company must now re-establish public confidence in their ability to deal with a crisis and the root cause of the crisis, and to bring about a satisfactory conclusion.

Effective communication will be integral to the larger process of information exchange aimed at eliciting trust and promoting understanding of the relevant issues or actions.

General Mills is now tasked with:

  • Restoring trust
  • Improving knowledge and understanding of the key issues
  • Guiding and encouraging appropriate attitudes, decisions, actions and behaviors
  • Encouraging collaboration and cooperation

Oftentimes, a company can count on its Brand Advocates to help distribute helpful content in a crisis, however General Mills now has the additional burden of re-establishing lost trust in their once ardent fan base.

Does this change how you might choose to interact with a product going forward?  Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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