Social advice for brands: How to take a stand without falling on your face - Part 2

Do you have a process for determining how (or even whether) you should respond to users on racial and social justice issues? Here's my advice for getting some digital policies and processes in place.

Kristina Podnar
August 4, 2020
- 6 min read

As I mentioned in my last post, consumers are paying attention to racial and other social justice issues now, and they’re demanding that brands do the same. Without question, this has been a unique moment in history, especially digital marketing and social media. Nobody can blame brands for being caught up in such a tidal wave of emotion. But as I’ve said before, it works a lot better if you have a process for determining how (or even whether) you should respond in such circumstances.

Here’s what I suggest.

Step away from the keyboard.

Whether it’s a stirring social movement or a Twitterstorm caused by something an employee posted, your first reaction should be to get your hands off the keyboard. Whether it’s positive or negative emotion, it short circuits what you should be doing, which is to pull up your digital policies -- and breathe.

Evaluate the situation in light of your organizational strategy.

I know how easy it is to get caught up in emotion. But, to be blunt, there are times when you should mind your own business. If you’re a content marketing agency, or a healthcare company, you probably don’t need to have a public opinion on Greta Thunberg. Move on!

Evaluate the situation in light of your digital policies.

If you’ve decided that whatever is going on is, indeed, your business, now it’s time to think about factors like these:

  • If Twitter is blowing up over something one of your employees did, check to see whether the employee in question was following company policy. If not, you may want to post a statement that you’re investigating the situation.
  • If the employee was following company policy, but you realize that it’s a bad policy, you may want to post a statement that says you’ll be re-evaluating the policy.
  • If the employee was following policy and you have no intention of changing it, you might want to just keep quiet.
  • If people who are not your customers are posting things that are either untrue or are irrelevant to your customers, you may decide to ignore them (don’t feed the trolls!). But keep your social media listening activities fully on task, so that if things escalate, you can still chime in before the situation becomes a real, head-on emergency.

The point is that your response should be based on your organizational strategy as well as the viewpoints of your primary stakeholder groups: customers, employees, C-suite, board of directors, etc. If you’ve been doing a good job of social listening, you’ll know what you need to do. If not, you may need to step back and make sure everybody is on the same page.

Ask yourself what could go wrong.

This one’s important -- you know what they say about good intentions! When you just jump in feet first without a plan in place, a lot can go wrong.

Hashtag fails
  •  #McDstories: This hashtag was intended to promote stories about the farmers who supply McDonalds with the ingredients for their products. Instead, Twitter users turned it around and started telling stories about bad experiences with the brand. McDonalds pulled the hashtag from their posts within two hours of launch.
  • #susanalbumparty: Capitalization would have helped with this hashtag intended to promote Susan Boyle’s latest album launch. Instead, Twitter users found something much less innocuous than intended. This one is a good reminder to have a number of different eyes look at your content to see if something potentially damaging is hiding within a hashtag.
  • Almost any “Ask a question” hashtag. By now, any brand would have to be pretty naive to do this and expect only sincere questions. Dr. Oz, for example, got questions about all kinds of weird (and inappropriate!) things. But #AskJPM probably takes the cake for cluelessness when they announced that one of their executives would be hosting a Twitter Q&A. The poor guy probably expected to get questions like “How do I apply for a credit card online?” Here’s a sampling of what he got instead:

“Can I have my house back?”

“I have mortgage fraud, market manipulation, credit card abuse,
Libor rigging, and predatory lending. Am I diversified?”

Did you always want to be part of a vast, corrupt criminal enterprise,
or did you “
break bad?

And my personal favorite:

“Why did U think this would be a good idea?”

This would have been a risky move under the best of situations, but since the bank was already the target of multiple investigations, it’s hard to imagine that someone didn’t raise their hand and say, “Uhm, what about…” Instead, Twitter had a lot of fun until JP Morgan was forced to pull the plug, Tweeting “Tomorrow’s Q&A is canceled. Bad idea. Back to the drawing board.”

Hashtag hijackings

Always, always make sure you understand what a hashtag is all about before you use it. Digiornio learned this lesson the hard way after Tweeting “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.” The hashtag was created to encourage women to share their stories of abuse, and the pizza company’s Tweet was seen as downplaying the reality of domestic abuse.

Cultural mishaps and other face palms

Sometimes it’s lack of familiarity with local culture, and other times it’s a face-palm-worthy misfiring of the brain:

  • To celebrate International Women’s Day 2019, appliance manufacturer Miele ran a Facebook ad that featured four ridiculously happy women sitting on top of a washer and dryer. Somebody must have told them that it’s not 1950 anymore, because they deleted the ad a few hours later. (I can’t help but blame that one on a lack of digital policies!)
  • After having success with a particular ad in the European market, Proctor & Gamble decided to take it to Japan. Unfortunately, the ad -- which featured a woman sitting in a bath while her husband gives her a massage -- offended the company’s Japanese customers, who consider the marital relationship to be very private. (Remember when American television showed husbands and wives sleeping in separate twin beds? Things change!)
  •  Dove beauty products caused a backlash from an ad it ran in the UK focused on breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding. They apparently didn’t learn much, because just three months later, they ran a Facebook video adthat seemed to indicate that using their products could turn a woman from black to white -- as if that were preferable. Dove apologized for both gaffes, but their reputation took a hit.

And those are just a few of the more egregious examples. Lots of things can go wrong when you take to social media,  especially when it comes to expressing your views on a potentially divisive topic. I strongly suggest that your digital policies include something along the lines of “Have people from a variety of races, cultures, classes, etc., look at it before you post.” Those folks just might spot what, in retrospect, is a blinding glimpse of the obvious. it worth it?

Yes, taking a stand on social issues is worth it. In a way, organizations have already set the stage by voicing their desire to have ongoing, authentic relationships with customers. After all, it’s hard to have an authentic relationship if you're not who you say you are, or if you don’t believe in the same things.

To sum it up:

  • Know who your organization is and what it believes in. If your organization is a social jerk, discuss your willingness to change. If you’re not willing to change, it’s probably best if you avoid making posts on any controversial issues.
  • Identify causes that are in alignment with your corporate identity, and develop a framework for supporting those causes. At the same time, work your support for those causes into your editorial calendar, so that you can talk about them in a way that sounds sincere rather than boastful.
  • Establish separate digital policies for the kind of things that take you by surprise. Don’t jump on trending issues just because they’re trending issues. Your reaction should reflect your organizational business strategy and should be in line with your digital policies.
  • Avoid the urge to be defensive when your organization is called out on social media. Look at the matter in context and in light of your digital policies, and respond appropriately.

The whole point of digital policies is to provide guardrails within which you can operate freely. Unfortunately, emotion can make people forget all about policies, especially when all of your social media channels are exploding with the same topic. But that’s exactly why everyone from your frontline employees to the C-suite needs to be trained in your digital policies and reminded frequently to refer to them any time they have a question.  

Need some help developing digital policies or training employees on how to use them to navigate social media obstacle courses? Please get in touch -- I’d love to help.

Social advice for brands: How to take a stand without falling on your face - Part 1

Photo by Sabrina Wendl

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