As Plum Baby now knows (‘Plum Baby investigates after shopper complaint about pouch,’ 3 May, p6), complaints about brands can come via any branch of social media.

The world has moved on since our clients had complaints departments. Unlike the one in the famous Carlsberg TV ad from the 1980s - dust-covered and rarely visited - some of theirs were, alas, busy. They were staffed with teams opening the post, reading letters from angry shoppers and sending a standard apology and postal order to the value of the product.

It was a damage limitation exercise that barely went further than acknowledging statutory rights. Something better was needed and so complaints departments were replaced by the euphemistic customer careline, where consumers could supposedly seek serving suggestions as well as complaining, of course - which was all they really wanted to do.

Now the customer careline seems almost as outdated as the complaints department. Where do your consumers go to complain today? Sure, they’ll pick up the (smart)phone, but it won’t be to make a call. It will be to register their concerns via social media. And this presents food and drink businesses with a real challenge that only some have grasped.

I heard Asda head of social media Dom Burch speaking last year about its phenomenal success in attracting one million Facebook likes and 137,000 Twitter followers.

”Most brands won’t get much value out of social media as a marketing tool”

Its approach isn’t based on pumping out marketing guff, but much more around giving ‘Asda mums who love the brand’ information that is actually useful to them. But this network also acts as an early warning system for anything that has gone wrong in-store. It used to be that the press office was the first to know of problems when the local paper phoned up. Now issues are identified via social media and often resolved before the media hears about them.

Most brands won’t get much value out of social media as a marketing tool. I don’t mean social has no role to play for fmcg brands - just that it isn’t the selling or marketing tool many brands seem to believe. The numbers on social media who actually want to engage with most brands are small. But as an insight, listening and response tool, it is fantastic.

Which brings us back to customer care. If you are not listening, in real time, to what consumers are saying, it’s like leaving your careline off the hook. If you are not responding swiftly to concerns, you are letting them and your brand down. And that response has to be in the right language (no marketing speak) and one-to-one.

Who should do this? Ideally someone who lives and breathes the brand. Who has the freedom and internal blessing to respond quickly to a developing conversation. But if you’re going to use an external supplier, only a really good PR agency will be up to the task. Digital agencies blind with science, but the subtle nuances of language and tone of voice? That’s a skill best left to a good account handler in a regular PR agency.

Rob Metcalfe is MD of Richmond Towers Communications and Straight Social