A New York Times article, titled “Social Media as a Megaphone to Pressure the Food Industry,” tells the story of how consumers, via social media, are challenging some of the all-powerful food industry’s long-held practices—and seeing big results.

Social media has changed the relationship between consumers and companies. Before you say to yourself, “My business isn’t on par with those guys,” there’s an important lesson to be learned from these titans of industry.

Industry Leaders Lead

Just as social media provides businesses with greats tools to gain insights, gauge new products and fine-tune marketing efforts, social media allows for proactive companies to generate enormous goodwill with its customer base—just by simply listening and responding.

The article details Renee Shutters’ effort to convince Mars, the famous candy maker, to replace the artificial dyes used in many of their candies with alternatives, such as dyes derived from seaweed. Testifying before the Food and Drug Administration proved futile (big surprise there), but when Ms Shutters turned to a petition with the help of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, more than 140,000 people the petition on petroleum-based food dyes.

And what are these concerned customers’ motivation? Rabble rousing?  The spotlight?

“I’ve really thought about calling them,” Ms. Shutters said about Mars to the New York Times. “I’m not trying to be this horrible person. What I’m really thinking is that this is an opportunity for their company to lead what would be an awesome publicity coup by taking these dyes out of their products.”

It doesn’t end there, either. Vani Hari, a blogger known as the Food Babe shined a light on nearly 100 ingredients in a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, including MSG, artificial colors and TBHQ, or tertiary butylhydroquinone, which is used as a preservative in many foods.

Chick-fil-A’s Response

Chick-fil-A invited Ms. Hari to spend a day at its headquarters in Atlanta in October 2012, where she discussed her concern about some ingredients.

“We’ve always tried to be a customer-focused organization,” said David B. Farmer, vice president for product strategy and development at Chick-fil-A to the New York Times. “What has clearly changed is some of the channels of communications, which wasn’t a factor in the past like it is today. We’ve had to adapt to that.”

Back to You

You don’t need an expensive, world-class public relations firm to put out your fires. You simply need someone or a small company that understands these tools and can leverage social media for your benefit. And guess what? They tend to be younger labor force participants and newer startups.

“Instead of relying on a P.R. firm, you have analytical tools to quantify how big an issue it is and how rapidly it’s spreading and how influential the people hollering are,” said Matthew Egol, a partner at Booz & Company. “Then you can make a decision about how to respond. It happens much more quickly.”

The folks at Mars got there. It’s not rocket science.

To read the article, click here.