When Syracuse University School of Information Studies Assistant Professor Anthony Rotolo heard an interesting social media based story from a friend, he decided to create a public teaching moment out of it, generating a public buzz that reverberated to the mainstream media.

Rotolo’s unnamed friend tweeted an unfavorable comparison of the grocery store Price Chopper to its competitor Wegmans. Reacting, in Rotolo’s opinion, rashly and inappropriately, a Price Chopper public relations representative reported the tweet and tweeter to his employer, commenting that the tweet could damage professional relations between the two companies. The employee also responded to him on her private Twitter account.

“What it all boils down to is that we all work for someone,” Rotolo told students in his Social Media in the Enterprise course. “What Price Chopper did in this situation suggests a failure to understand even the most basic principles of social media. It did not address the customer’s concerns or attempt to build a relationship. Instead, it chose to carry out what appears to be a vindictive and mean-spirited attack designed to silence a detractor.”

Rotolo, social media strategist for Syracuse University, saw his friend’s incident as a way to open up a dialogue for his students and others about how organizations should respond to public criticism. What followed was indeed the public dialogue he was hoping for. Students, community members, and even Price Chopper’s head of public relations discussed the impact of the employee’s action on the chain’s social media brand.

“We had no knowledge of this situation until we received tweets just a short while ago. We are currently looking to get details regarding the post,” wrote Price Chopper’s Director of Consumer Insights Heidi Reale on Rotolo’s blog. “Thank you very much for bringing this to our attention. Please be assured we take this situation very seriously.”

After an inquiry, the rogue employee posted on Rotolo’s blog as well, saying, “I want to take this opportunity to accept full responsibility for this situation. I am the Price Chopper employee who triggered this chain of events. I’ve worked in the public relations department at the company for the last two months and I saw the negative tweets and responded through my personal twitter account. This is not the way that Price Chopper normally handles critical comments on Twitter or other social media.”

Rotolo and his class, as well as the outside community, discussed the employee’s response, as well as the official company’s response on the original blog. Some posters defended the notion that individuals are always as representatives of their organization while others noted that it, if the businesses were unrelated, an individual should be able to comment on a bare produce section or voice a public complaint using social media without it reflecting on their employer.

The conversation winded its way to several blogs and online communities. Chris Brogan, the author of “Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust” tweeted “Hmm. Price Chopper might’ve handled this differently, methinks” with a link to Rotolo’s original blog post to his more than 150 thousand followers. The Syracuse Post Standard, Albany Times Union, All over Albany, Consumerist and others also summarized and reported on the story.

Rotolo has also invited Price Chopper’s Consumer Insight team to discuss the issue in person during one of his classes. They have accepted the invitation and plan on attending his October 5 class.