General Mills' controversial legal move draws flak

General Mills, the parent company of popular food brands such as Häagen-Dazs, Betty Crocker and Nature Valley, has had to deal with much consumer backlash after the changes it made to its legal policy.

On 2 April this year, the food industry giant quietly added this to its legal policies: that consumers who were engaged with its brands on social media withdrew their rights to sue the company. When the change was reported by The New York Times, General Mills found itself in the midst of a PR storm.

The broadly termed word "engagement" in its policies seemed to impact consumers who subscribed to the company's email newsletters, joined its social media community or even printed coupons with offers.  In partaking in any of these activities, consumers would have to hash out their disputes with the company via arbitration or informal negotiations.

Over the weekend, the company has also decided to reverse the policies to its original form and has had to apologise.

Following the uproar, Kirstie Foster, the director of external communications for General Mills, who leads media relations and corporate social media wrote on the company’s blog  that the terms and intentions “were widely misread, causing concern among consumers.”

She added that the company rarely has disputes with consumers and arbitration “would have simply streamlined how complaints are handled”.

“On behalf of our company and our brands, we would also like to apologise.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,” Foster added. A company spokesperson clarified that these legal changes only affected the US market and not its consumers in Asia.

However, it seems like the company is not yet out of the hot seat as consumers continue to voice their unhappiness:

However, Jamie Morse, managing director, H + K Strategies said he suspects similar legal policies to what General Mills has made exists across many other similar firms, only that they are little known to consumers.

“In that sense it looks to me like a case of General Mills being caught out first. That said, ‘but everybody does it’ it not going to be a successful case for their defence in the court of public opinion,” said Morse, adding that it is too early to tell what the reputational impact will be on General Mills.

“In order to win back the trust of consumers, General Mills will need to show that it takes its retraction seriously by continuing to monitor and respond in an upbeat but clear manner any further questions,” said Mylinh Cheung, founder of Epic PR.

Cheung added that a blog post or an FAQ on the matter should be made visible on the company’s website or Facebook to help answer any remaining queries.

She said that she did not think the company was harshly impacted, however, as it had moved quickly to respond.

“This is a lesson in not trying to be too controlling with social media. Once you try to gain too much control over your fans, you will lose them,” she concluded.