NestleFamily, breastfeeding and social media

I have a great amount of data from the recent NestleFamily twitterstorm. Luckily, I was able to see the storm coming. As a few of the attendees began tweeting about meeting up a few days prior to the start of #NestleFamily, I could see that there was going to be some fallout. My interest had been piqued a few months earlier with the Nestle “What’s for Dinner” junket that received some backlash (which I was a part of, albeit briefly).

Even though I was prepared for it, I doubt anyone saw the enormity and longevity of the community’s outrage. The tail of it is still going. This was a key happening on Twitter, and it had far more impact than the Motrin Moms speedbump. I would argue that Twitter’s community has morphed again as a result. Focus on the types of junkets mommy/daddybloggers who call themselves “PR friendly” accept, and what it says about who they are doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There were real responses from the community. Many negative. This great post by cynematic discusses this responsibility further.

My research

I manually copied thousands of tweets using the #NestleFamily hashtag. I also created an online survey that people were invited to complete during the twitterstorm. I’m very excited to have that data. The 66 completed responses are authentic, grabbed at the time it was all happening, and the qualitative survey responses are about as true to real emotion as you can get – people were telling me what they were doing at the same time as doing it. That’s not easy to get when questioning people about their about online activity. When I write it up it will be a chapter in my thesis, and probably a paper/conference presentation as well. I’m going to write up a short version of the results and post it here on my blog soon.

The most positive outcome has been the amazing work done by Annie, aka @PhDinParenting, who took the opportunity to ask some very pointed questions of Nestle. Nestle has been responding to her questions, so good on them. And Annie has posted their responses in the best, most transparent means possible. She then adds her own analysis and research, with links that are exhaustive, informed and inspiring. It is her work that represents the future of real journalism. It’s why I say that the future of journalism is social.

My question to Nestle

I kept largely out of the limelight on this twitterstorm so as not to taint the data I was collecting. I did, however, want to find out Nestle’s views on the dismal rate of breastfeeding in the USA. Nestle promotes its substitute milk in the USA, and with the USA’s very low rate of exclusive infant breastfeeding at 6 months of age, I wanted to find out what they thought about it all. I submitted the question as follows:

As a premier substitute baby milk manufacturer and marketer in the USA, I’d like to know what your opinion is about the fact that the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the USA lies at just 12%, when the WHO says it recommends 100% exclusivity for the first six months.

Your Nestle site states that WHO is the “gold standard” so I’m assuming you would agree this statistic is troubling.

Why do you believe this statistic exists? Do you think it can change? And if so, how?

It took a few weeks (I think Nestle lost my question, and then located it when I enquired again about their response), but their response is here:

Thank you for contacting us. We apologize for the delay in our response and we appreciate your patience.

At Nestlé Nutrition we support the positions of the American Academy of Pediatrics and WHO that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of age is best. The most recent statistics from the 2008 CDC Breastfeeding Report Card (2006 data) show that the national average from exclusive breastfeeding is around 13.6%, which is below the Health (sic) People 2010 goal of 17%.

According to the CDC Infant Feeding Practices Study (IFPS) II (http://www.cdc.gov/ifps/ , there are many reasons why mothers might stop breastfeeding, ranging from difficulty with sucking and latching to worries about producing enough milk. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/122/Supplement_2/S69#T2

We believe that optimal infant health is truly the goal and we advocate for more infant feeding support and education for mothers, regardless of whether they breastfeed, formula feed or both.

We are encouraged by the improvements reported in breastfeeding initiation and duration and will continue our efforts to educate and encourage mothers to give their babies a healthy start. That includes providing education and resources for her, and if she cannot or chooses not to breastfeed, or chooses to supplement her breastmilk, we provide high quality, iron-fortified infant formula-the only safe and healthy alternative to breastmilk.

Robyn Wimberly RD,LD.
Nestle Nutrition Contact Center

So there you go. I have my own thoughts on this response. The final paragraph, to me, is just disgraceful – it’s written very poorly. It seems to be saying that Nestle’s substitute formula is the only “safe and healthy alternative to breastmilk.” I know that those words “safe and healthy” are definitely not something I agree with. But I’m a breastfeeding advocate, ex-journalist and PR queen, and am used to spin. I have done the research. I know what I know and have made up my own mind. The US Government has initiated the Healthy People plan, but where breastfeeding rates are concerned it is failing – and it doesn’t reflect the WHO “gold standard” referred to on Nestle’s own site. There are holes all over this response. The last paragraph made me wince. I think Annie does a brilliant job of dissecting these responses and calling out the holes. I’m not going to do that here. I recommend you read all of Annie’s work, and if interested in more, you can read my short research blog piece on Breastfeeding in America, see the Ignite presentation, or email me for the full papers to see how the numbers stack up. And then make up your own mind.

So what does all this mean?

Now, I know that this storm has ended up being thrown in the “too hard” basket by many people on both sides of the fence, as well as those who sit on top of that same fence. Statistics are being used pragmatically. Manipulation of data is rife. There’s aggravation, and it becomes personal for many who feel attacked by even discussing it. For many, it sucked the ‘fun’ out of Twitter.

But the fact is, this milestone proved the resilience of the microblogging community. It’s opened a conversation that will bind the community even more solidly. It’s given us a view of people that we didn’t know before. People to both connect with, disconnect from, and understand better, even if they disagree with us. If Twitter were really nothing more than messages about eating candy and frozen dinners, then this storm wouldn’t exist. People have taken it upon themselves to get better educated about something they might not have known about before. They were provided links and questions. They had the opportunity to follow up, and go deeper into the issues than they have ever been led by mainstream media, and Nestle ended up without the buffer of media to spin their messages to.

Key Learnings

For the community: Mainstream media is no longer an excuse for not knowing about stuff. The depth of information you have is up to you and your attention span. That’s a hard responsibility to own. In Nestle’s case, I congratulate anyone (including some attendees) who tried to find out more information or followed it up, no matter where you ultimately sit on the ‘issues’. I challenge those who simply sought an easy path and blindly continued tweeting Nestle-friendly inane statements on Twitter, without addressing any of the twitterstorm. It won’t, in the longer term, help your credibility in the community. The really influential people in this equation can be easily identified. And that’s awesome.

For companies: You don’t get to own your messages any more. Social media represents a revolution, not an evolution. It’s another tool in your promotional strategy, but you have to be ready for the real conversation. The one where your comments get called on. The one you don’t direct. And you will never have the last word unless the community deems it to be okay.

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5 responses to “NestleFamily, breastfeeding and social media

  1. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  2. While I am obviously not a breastfeeding advocate (hence the screen name) I do have to say that I think the way social media has impacted this debate has been startling. You explain this phenomenon so well, and I agree with you that we can all learn and grow from how Twitter is changing the face of media.

    As a journalist myself, I also agree with you that the language used in Nestle’s response is pretty disgusting. However, I do agree with the argument they are (poorly) offering – I think the reasons for low breastfeeding rates in this country are due to a million other problems, first and foremost being our god-awful maternity rights. I think it harms breastfeeding advocacy to focus so much on blaming the formula companies. In my humble opinion, I believe it wastes time, resources and energy.

    But other than that – great post. I love the blog and am glad I’ve found it – I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about your research and upcoming thesis! Good luck!

    • Thank you so much for your comment! This is entirely the conversation that needs to happen, and I believe you are completely correct in saying that the low rates of breastfeeding are a societal issue which extend beyond any one easy-picking. It’s only when we’re open to hearing different perspectives that understanding can truly happen, and then change can be sought. If it needs to be. Thank you for your kind comments too, and I look forward to more conversations!

  3. Thanks for this great article Jo! There are many many societal barriers to breastfeeding. Yes, things like lacking maternity leave and the things Nestle mentions in its answer do contribute, but there is much more than that. And in the area of the much more, Nestle is both directly and indirectly (via its influence of society, health professionals, etc.) complicit in maintaining those barriers.

    I wrote about the many societal barriers to breastfeeding in this post:

    http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/09/10/societal-barriers-to-breastfeeding/

  4. Pingback: Nestle Answers: Can a formula company support breastfeeding? | PhD in Parenting

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