It must have sounded like a sweet idea for a summer Facebook campaign from a chocolate maker with 2.3 million fans.
But the Hershey Company was left with a bitter taste in its mouth when social activists elbowed in on a s’mores-themed photo contest, asking the Pennsylvania firm not to use cocoa allegedly harvested with child and slave labor.
Hershey recently launched a photo contest on asking fans to upload photos, no doubt hoping to fill its Facebook pages with images of sticky-fingered kids around the campfire eating the chocolate, marshmallow and graham-cracker treats.
But Change.org, which has successfully pressured other corporations, marshaled activists to fill Hershey’s Facebook pages with pleas to use chocolate from sources certified to use fair labor practices. Many hold signs stating their message.
“Dear #Hershey,” writes one respondent, “please change your recipe. I like my chocolate Slave-Free.”
The situation highlights just why social media is not only a powerful means of branding, but a grenade that can blow up in a company’s hand. Last year Hershey’s fellow chocolate maker Nestle defended itself on its own Facebook page as it sought to fend off activist critics concerned about deforestation of the rain forests. Burson-Marsteller drew criticism in May when it deleted negative posts on its Facebook page.
Reached by phone, Change.org Senior Organizer Amanda Kloer says child- and forced labor and human trafficking are widespread in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, from which Hershey imports much of its cocoa. Hershey and other cocoa buyers signed a protocol a decade ago that sought to halt abuses, but the results have been limited, she says.
“Unfortunately, Hershey right now is the largest international chocolate company that has really failed to engage in some of the proactive practices,” Kloer says.
These include creating more transparent supply chains and working closely with activists to verify fair labor practices, she adds.
A Hershey spokesman did not immediately return a call from Ragan.com seeking comment. It apparently wasn’t the first time Hershey passed on a chance to comment during a Change.org campaign; it reportedly didn’t reply to an interview request from PC World in July.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Pennsylvania chocolatier’s strategy seemed to be to grin and bear it. The most recent post from Hershey had come hours earlier and said nothing about the controversy:
“The largest HERSHEY’S Milk Chocolate Bar available weighs 5 lbs! What would you do with 5 pounds of chocolate?”
However, Hershey also had not shut down comments on its Facebook page, and posts about s’mores and slave labor seemed to be staying up on the site. There were no recent press releases on the topic in its online newsroom.
Hershey has sought to portray itself as sensitive to concerns about allegations of abuses by its suppliers. In a 2009 corporate responsibility report, it stated, “We have taken a number of steps as a company and an industry to increase farm-level incomes, build community sustainability and address the troubling issue of child labor in cocoa-producing regions.”
The company also stated in a press release earlier this month that it is supporting an initiative to provide text messages to Ghanaian farmers with access to cell phones, offering information about farm safety, child labor, health, crop disease prevention, and other issues.
Change.org argues that Hershey’s actions are insufficient in the face of reports about child labor abuses in cocoa-supplying countries, including one from Tulane University.
The s’mores campaign is not the first that Change.org has been involved against the chocolate-maker this summer. In June, Raise the Bar asked consumers to visit supermarkets and make videos of themselves posting print-outs of “consumer alerts” that contained QR codes which read: “Hershey’s chocolate is tainted with child labor.”