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Backlash prompts General Mills to backtrack on social media policy

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There was little Cheer in the Cheerios Thursday as a New York Times story about General Mills went viral. Now the Golden Valley-based company is taking steps to repair the backlash.

The Times story said liking General Mills on social media could render consumers unable to sue the company. The story explained that the company had established a new policy which "broadly asserts that consumers interacting with the company in a variety of ways and venues no longer can sue General Mills, but must instead submit any complaint to 'informal negotiation' or arbitration."

The story was met with immediate reaction, most of it negative. A story in the Atlantic was headlined "General Mills: If you clip this coupon, you can't sue us!" The Christian Science Monitor offered "Download a Cheerios coupon? You can’t sue General Mills." Entrepreneur framed it like this: "Dislike: If You 'Like' General Mills on Facebook, You Can't Sue the Company."

On Friday, an update in the New York Times clarified the company's new legal policies did not apply to people who visit its Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. General Mills spokesman Mike Siemienas told the Times that the “online communities” mentioned in the policy referred only to those online communities hosted by General Mills on its own websites.

“No one is precluded from suing us merely by purchasing our products at the store or liking one of our brand Facebook pages," he wrote in an e-mail.

But if General Mills offers a consumer a coupon in exchange for “liking” one of its brands on Facebook, the consumer will be required to agree to the new terms to get it, Siemienas said.

General Mills took to its own blog to reassure its customers in a story headlined, "Explaining our website privacy policy and legal terms." It said that the changes to the company's online privacy policy and legal terms had been "broadly mischaracterized."

The blog post explained that consumers who visit a company website will see a message about the new privacy policy that reads: Please note we also have new Legal Terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration.”

"The policy doesn’t preclude a consumer from pursuing a claim. It merely determines the forum," the post continued, noting that if a dispute arises from these interactions, it would be resolved through arbitration, described as "a straightforward and efficient way to resolve" such matters.

"We even cover the cost of arbitration in most cases," it added.

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