It was the middle of last year. One of my kids had nearly a thousand bucks pinched from her bank account. Huge number of phone calls back and forth with the bank, with the bank refusing to recognise it was not possible for her to have been in that place at that time.
Finally, a mate of hers took to Twitter and within a day, the bank had refunded the money (not before everyone had shamed that particular bank and many others for refusing to act speedily when it comes to card fraud).
It's hard to shame companies privately - it's almost as if they don't feel any guilt or even responsibility about their unethical practices or they do only when their flaws are exposed for all to see. That's when they make amends. Social media is almost the only avenue available when Bert The Bot refuses to take your concerns seriously; and not all of us got to air our grievances at the Royal Commission.
The good news is that banks and other companies may now have to take our tweets and our Facebook posts seriously - particularly when we complain.
Corporate watchdog, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, has proposed new standards for dispute resolution with customers. Banks and other financial institutions will be forced to accept social media criticism of them as legitimate complaints, under new standards being proposed by ASIC.
This has got to be the most exciting thing ever. The idea that we no longer have to jump hurdles designed to put us off making a complaint will make the lives of consumers better. It broadens what a complaint actually is - and makes the process seamless.
The consultation paper also includes proposals for reduced timeframes for complaints, better communication with the customer; and closer attention to systemic issues (which, thanks to the Royal Commission, we now know are a complete dirtpile).
But virtual advocacy expert Erin O'Brien, a political scientist at QUT, says she fears some organisations will remove themselves from social media altogether because they have concerns about how they will manage their social media presence. Yep, we've seen some truly truly dreadful responses, lest we forget the massive fail when Woolies tried to leverage Anzac Day and copped a social hiding. O'Brien says some big companies avoid Twitter like the plague. Apple, for instance, has a verified corporate account without a single tweet (and with a big disclaimer that privacy is important used as its header photo).
Lush Cosmetics doesn't have a single corporate account but many smaller ones, which would limit corporate damage. She also highlights successful campaigns on social media such as #notmydebt, targeting Centrelink's harmful robocall program.
"Some of this is about preservation of reputation and some companies may also be concerned about the ethics of the social media platforms themselves," says O'Brien.
I'd struggle to imagine that the big banks could avoid social - and if they did, there would soon be an explosion of parody accounts. You can imagine. @WitchBank. @NABbed. The tweets would write themselves.
And O'Brien also reminds me that social media is the place where good practice is praised. She didn't invent the word buycott (instead of refusing to buy a product, you deliberately consume from companies which behave ethically). This week, a branch of Officeworks received lots of social love for refusing to print election material for Brian Clare, a candidate for Fraser Anning's Conservative National Party. Clare was furious but head office backed the store manager's decision and so did the community.
Officeworks Hornsby store business manager Justina Simonyte said: "Our phone lines have been very busy with customers congratulating us, some have even brought cookies in for us."
The tweets also went wild.
"Is it true Officeworks refused to print stuff for Fraser Anning? If so my god I will never go anywhere else for stationery again. 10 gold stars to you."
"Thank you for taking this stand. I don't need any stationery, but I'm off to my local Officeworks right now. Can't have enough glitter pens."
Consumer activism doesn't always need to be negative to become mobilised. O'Brien says consumers will respond to positive information and will then engage with making ethical purchases and that can happen in the background with nary a mention of social media. And yes, she says, buycotts do work. But there's one tactic that works even better than a boycott; and that, stretching the neologisms ever further, is a dualcott.
That's a way of positioning two brands against each other. For example, you'd ditch the banks and insurance companies which sold their products to dead people and choose products where the banks acted ethically at all times (hey, email me if you know of any of those. The only one I know employs a relative of mine so I can never speak about it in public. He's afraid his employer will discover we are related).
O'Brien calls that a dualcott. She says a very good example was used by Stop the Traffik, which pitted UK supermarkets Tesco (the good folks who used ethical chocolate) against Sainsbury's in an Easter egg face-off. It's a tactic used to good effect in the Naughty vs Nice campaign, where Oxfam and others promoted ethical clothing brands versus those still making products under slave labour conditions. As O'Brien says, it gives people a choice. It's possible to eat chocolate where no orangutans died for your desires.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.