One of the most famous commercials of the 1970s explained to us that, if we told two friends about Faberge Organics shampoo, they would tell two friends and so on and so on. It indicated the power of social interaction, demonstrating on-screen how, after a short while, hundreds and then thousands of people would know about the benefits of wheat germ, oil and honey shampoo. 

In the era of social media, the adage has changed. “You tweet to all your followers, and they’ll tweet to all of their followers and so on and so on.” Then, rather than spreading your message by powers of two, consumers suddenly have the ability to inform tens or hundreds of thousands of people within seconds. They can easily spread the positive word about your delightful products… or they can propagate bad news through the same channels.

One company that learned this lesson the hard way is Chobani, a popular Greek yogurt brand – and thankfully, not the favorite of John Stamos, spokesperson for that other brand. On Aug. 26, Chobani issued a “voluntary withdrawal” of its products from store shelves, after learning of a problem with mold in its yogurt.

Once upon a time, that sort of event would have flown under the radar. Stores would have removed the product and perhaps employees would have “told two friends” about it. But instead, Chobani learned a tough lesson about how social media empowers consumers to disseminate their opinions, and how companies must keep this risk in mind when developing social media strategies.

At first, the negative social media posts came in at a trickle, but momentum grew toward Labor Day weekend. The Wall Street Journal reported that one tweet, on Aug. 30, came from a supermarket worker who had seen a Chobani recall. At the time, the company had only issued the voluntary withdrawal – an important distinction when dealing with the Food and Drug Administration but one that is lost on the average person. 

It is possible that this negative conversation (Chobani tried to engage the tweeter, perhaps making matters worse) spurred the company to issue the formal recall. Either way, Chobani soon became inundated with social media comments and phone calls, eventually training staff to help with the response effort.

As the first major crisis encountered by the eight year old company, it was caught unaware, lacking risk managers to monitor social media feeds and properly trained agents who could deal with the negative response. 

It’s a hard lesson to learn – harder than any that John Stamos doled out as Uncle Jesse on Full House – but it is a story that can help other companies in the future. Businesses, no matter what the size, should keep a close eye on social media outlets, assessing the risks and rewards and making business savvy decisions. After all, when people ask you to explain social media messages, it’s not okay to say “It’s all Greek to me.”