6 tips to quell calls for a boycott

If the online mob comes for your company, don’t panic. Closely monitor your mentions, always respond professionally, and create a detailed crisis response plan.

Consumers seem to be champing at the bit to boycott businesses these days.

According to research from Cone Communications, 76% of consumers say they’d be willing to boycott a company if they disagree with values it advocates. In recent months, we’ve seen boycotters accusing companies of being racist, unpatriotic, anti-family, anti-LGBTQ or politically wrong-headed.

Some of those charges have been based on false or misleading information. Calls for a boycott of Olive Garden recently spread on Twitter after someone claimed the restaurant chain had donated to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The company responded promptly to correct the misinformation.

“We don’t know where this information came from, but it is incorrect,” Olive Garden posted on Twitter. “Our company does not donate to presidential candidates.”

Customers vowed to boycott Home Depot after the store’s co-founder, Bernie Marcus, pledged to back Trump’s re-election bid. The company tried to distance itself from the co-founder—who retired more than a decade ago and does not speak for the company, Home Depot spokesperson Margaret Smith said in a statement.

“In fact, as a standard practice, the company does not endorse presidential candidates,” she said.

Why many boycott efforts don’t affect sales

A handful of boycotts have significantly damaged businesses, but most quickly fizzle out and cause little or no sales hit. A swift, decisive response can often prevent a potential crisis, or support for your brand may prompt a counter-boycott and soften damage.

Despite their vows on social media, customers have difficulty breaking shopping or dining habits. Boycotters may not be the company’s targeted customers, despite their strong beliefs. The PETA-led boycott of KFC had little impact, for instance.

“With a few exceptions, most threats to boycott do not impact the cash register,” Whitney Dailey, vice president of Cone Communications, told Twin Cities PBS. “They are, however, a powerful means to pressure companies to take action.”

Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, activists called for a boycott of the National Rifle Association and its affiliates. In response, companies such as Best Western, Enterprise Holdings and Delta Air Lines severed ties with the NRA.

The dangers of negative coverage

Even if revenue remains steady, companies can and should be mindful of the potential long-term harm of reputational damage—especially if a boycott prompts negative media attention. News coverage can fuel social media commentary, which prompts additional coverage. Headline-grabbing boycotts can affect stock prices and profoundly affect how a company is perceived. Take Chick-fil-A, for instance.

“The No. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” says Brayden King, professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University and an Institute for Policy Research associate.

Here’s how to avoid and respond to boycott campaigns:

  • Monitor your online mentions. Close monitoring of both social media and news media can alert PR teams of negative comments, unfavorable coverage and calls for boycotts. The sooner you’re aware of accusations, the sooner you can respond.
  • Dig into social media analytics. Social media analytics, including sentiment analysis, can reveal why people feel anger or frustration toward your brand. Animosity could be due to the company’s values—or perceived values—rather than faulty products or services.
  • Wait it out. Given the recent proliferation of boycott calls, the fast-moving news cycle and short attention spans, a “wait-it-out” strategy can work. “One has to wonder if the effect of activism targeting companies is becoming diluted, in the sense that we can’t pay attention to any single controversy for very long,” King says. However, if the boycott is based on misinformation, issue a correction—as Olive Garden did.
  • Understand and promote your company’s values. Determine what your organization stands for, understand what your target audience cares about, and take a stand on issues that align with your customers’ core values. Brands that lack an identity become vulnerable, says Winston Binch, an executive at Gale Partners. “There are unfortunately no knockout punches when it comes to handling boycott movements,” he advises. “But if I could sum it up in just a few words, make sure that your brand has a soul. Soul sells.”
  • Respond professionally. Appearing defensive, angry or smug can make the situation worse. A measured response is best. “Always communicate politely with a smile. Say, ‘I understand. Thank you very much. We’re concerned about that,’” advises Richard Levick, chairman and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm Levick.
  • Create a PR crisis plan. Any business can face a boycott, so make sure you have a plan in place to respond with aplomb. A smart PR crisis plan names a crisis response team with an assigned spokesperson, and it outlines how information will be communicated to internal and external stakeholders and the general public.

There’s no way to prevent a boycott from coming your way, but there’s plenty you can do to minimize and neutralize the threat to your business.

A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.


No Responses to “6 tips to quell calls for a boycott”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Carol Cone, cited in this excellent PR Daily article, is so terrific that after a top PR firm bought Carol Cone’s successful PR firm, a different top PR firm managed to employ successful Carol Cone! (The employment may technically have been as “a consultant” rather than employee so as not to violate a restrictive covenant.)

    One piece of important PR wisdom counseled by both Carol and the Holy Bible: “Give and ye shall receive.” Individually and corporately we are valued by how much we benefit others. Create more benefit and you create more public esteem. Create benefit the public cares about intensely and you may create intense goodwill from over 100 million Americans who may have the ear—and the votes—of our government leaders.

    Preachers urged giving unto others because it is goodness. Carol Cone and her gifted colleagues counseled giving because it is also good PR.

    What is often called CSR for “Corporate Social Responsibility” might better be called CSO for “Corporate Social Opportunity.” Without it costing a company one dime, the annual corporate budget for good deeds may be restructured so there’s support for a BIG good deed opportunity so important that it actually wins goodwill from MORE than 100 million of us.

    It may seem odd to counter the peril of boycott, which means giving you less, by good deeds that give the public more. But it works because the much respected Bible ad Carol Cone are correct that you can get by giving.

    Consider these guidelines.

    DO GOOD DEEDS NOW before a boycott or threat of one is made. It’s not only easier to gain goodwill when no one is attacking you but the goodwill you get reduces the peril of your being attacked. Activist predators are less inclined to attack the reputationally strong than the reputationally weak.

    INVOLVE MEDIA AND POLITICAL LEADERS. Whether your sponsorship of help for others involves an essay contest for students, a collection effort or whatever, arrange for a newspaper or TV station plus a legislator or governor to be co-sponsors. When you need a friend you’ll have allies who helped you befriend the needy.

    AVOID REPEATING THE ACCUSATION. Non-PR executives sometimes begin a defense by saying that such-and-such charge isn’t true, but this may bring the accusation to the attention of many people who never heard it in the first place!

    DEMONSTRATE THE “POSITIVE OPPOSITE.” If you’re accused of endangering the public by pollution, product safety or whatever, saying “ain’t really so” is the answer expected even from someone who is guilty. But if you have facts, pictures, plus perhaps charts and tapes to show that just the opposite is true—that you PROTECT the public—you may emerge from the crisis with more goodwill than when it began.

    RECOGNIZE THAT NOT JUST SAYING BUT SEEING WINS. Let’s say you’re announcing that to protect the public you’re sponsoring a “let’s kill cancer” thrust at America’s famed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. At the announcement have news in pictures: your top executive are pictured in the lab saying how “these genius doctors” may save millions of lives, and the doctors say “these generous executives and their companies” are financing research that may save all those lives. Once your top executives are picturd with world famous researchers like Drs. Richard Steingart, Anas Younes and Andrew Zelenetz, it’s good for you with customers, good in Washington and good for your employee morale.

    TRY FOR PHYSICAL PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT. If the top doctors not only warn about a disease but tell the public how to detect whether you may have early signs of it, look what you accomplish: if you get 50 million Americans to feel their necks and the necks of family members to see if there’s a lump, can you estimate how much goodwill toward your company you’ll be getting from those 50 million? Can you see why activists may prefer to boycott someone else?

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