Garden businesses have been warned that social media can be a negative as well as positive influence and advised to carefully manage how they react to criticism on Twitter and Facebook.
The advice follows critical comments aimed at two garden centres that owners say could potentially damage business. Bents Home & Garden in Cheshire was on the end of a Facebook backlash after deciding to give notice to quit to Wild Wings Bird of Prey, an on-site not-for-profit rescue centre and visitor attraction that moved in a year ago.
Bents said after making "a large investment" in the centre, visitor numbers had not reached expected levels and it had decided that it was "best for both parties" if Wild Wings found a new home. Bents managing director Matthew Bent added that the £4.50 entrance fee had annoyed some customers, who expected the attraction to be free because it is within the centre.
There were subsequently 241 Facebook comments, mostly negative to Bents, including pledges to boycott the garden centre. Bents responded by saying the comments were often hurtful and based on misinformation.
"Don't take criticism personally and get into tit for tat," said Bent. "Let it roll, then they're onto something else. People jump to conclusions based on inaccurate information, don't know the full facts and make it up."
Stewarts Garden Centre managing director Martin Stewart, based in Christchurch, Dorset, said he is hoping that there will not be a Twitter backlash after he gave four disadvantaged young people employment as part of a BBC3 television programme called Invasion of the Job Snatchers.
Stewarts had good experiences with three of the four employees. Stewart said: "I'm half expecting a bit of a backlash, which would be unfair because I'm genuinely wanting to help."
Taking steps to counteract adverse coverage on social media
Doug Stewart, garden centre consultant
"The simple action of disabling public reviews on the site would have stopped many customers reviewing the centre as one star, a rating that will stay with the centre long after the current issues are forgotten. They have, however, stood back and allowed there to be a discussion between customers.
"In this situation it is tempting to delete comments, which would be seen by users as censorship and would have caused even more outrage. It is also tempting to defend one's actions and so get into a public argument with customers. Bents' hands-off approach prevented this and thus avoided fanning the flames of protest. But it may have been prudent to offer a clearer explanation, not a defence of the company's position.
"We would advise the use of the 80:20 rule - 80 per cent of future posts should be about Bents, products, offers, etc, while 20 per cent should show the vital role it plays in the local community to regain trust and show caring side of the company.
"With regard to Stewarts' issues, when using social media platforms the employee must ensure that they do not tag the company or post information about the company that is confidential or potentially damaging to its reputation."