Brands today are facing big challenges when it comes to social issues.
Moments pop up and they are forced to give an opinion about a matter trending in the media.
This is a tough spot to be in for public relations teams. You want your CEO or company spokespeople out there driving positive PR, but in the blink of an eye, things can go south. A boycott hashtag with your brand’s name attached appears on social media. The news goes viral. You know the drill.
When asked to provide a perspective about something happening in the world, it seems like there are no right answers. You must pick a side. This seems unfair, but it must be accepted that this is the world we live in, and all brands beware.
No brand is safe.
We are seeing this more than ever in our polarizing political climate. Millions of social media users have their itchy typing fingers on the ready. They want to react with their passionate opinions and jump on board with the latest boycott. Just ask the slew of brands who have been forced into crisis response mode recently by having a stance blow up, and all of a sudden they become a part of the amplified news cycle.
Crisis response planning is critical in today’s hypersensitive and over sensationalized digital landscape. All brands, large and small, national and local, should be preparing themselves for backlash they did not anticipate surrounding a controversial social issue.
How? For starters, they need to clearly define their brand values, stay consistent and maintain ethical standards.
There is a very fine line when addressing social issues as a company, because usually there are only two distinct positions that can be taken on a topic. However, a crisis situation resulting from expressing a position on a social issue can be viewed as an opportunity to reiterate your brand’s values.
When a crisis situation occurs, this a chance to reinforce your values by responding to the situation in a pure and ethical manner.
By establishing clear values for your brand, true stakeholders will maintain their loyalty through the crisis. Additionally, consumers with opposite views will have a better understanding and increased respect for the brand’s honest perspectives.
Will you lose customers? Maybe. But they were most likely not your primary audience anyway. The true stakeholders will stick by you and become a critical component of moving your brand past the negativity.
A case study to look at is Chick-fil-A and how the fast-food brand responded to negativity surrounding their views on same-sex marriage. S. Truett Cathy founded the chain in 1946 and built the brand’s values around his spirituality. He implemented policies such as closing stores on Sunday to recognize religion, and set up a private foundation to support various faith-based organizations. Because of the brand’s religious values, Chick-fil-A was on the side opposing same-sex marriages.
In 2012, Chick-fil-A faced a blaze of disapproval for their position on the issue of same-sex marriage in the media and on Facebook and Twitter. The company needed to develop an ethical crisis response in order to maintain credibility with its stakeholders, while minimizing their threats to consumers who were in support of same-sex marriages.
The momentum of the negativity on social media, as well as through traditional media was building to the point that government officials began making demands to Chick-fil-A. To combat the situation, Chick-fil-A began creating responses to the negative posts and news coverage. Their ongoing responses reiterated that they are respectful to all people regardless of their views, and they referenced their biblical values and beliefs about same-sex marriage. This gave Chick-fil-A the opportunity to clearly state their consistent corporate values.
Virtue ethics can help clarify the role organizational values can play during a crisis.
In the book, Effective Crisis Communication, Moving From Crisis to Opportunity, authors Robert Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow and Matthew Seegar explain virtue ethics.
They say the term suggests that people tend to act in predictable ways and follow their established patterns of conduct. An example the author’s use is a manager who has developed a habit of being honest in the past, tends to be honest in the future. Honesty, in this case, is a virtue of this manager.
In the case of Chick-fil-A, their religious beliefs serve as the basis for their core values. Because the brand demonstrates honesty, and is up front with their values, it helps them move through crisis situations caused by social issues.
For the foreseeable future, it does not appear that the current media landscape and sensitivities surrounding social issues is going to change. That is why I encourage all brands to think about brand values, define them and stick with them. They may just be your most valuable tool if faced against the next boycott hashtag.
Chris Daley is the Director of Brand and Business Development for Maroon PR. He also serves as an adjunct professor in the Business Communication program at Stevenson University.
Photo via Pixabay