Brand managers today face big challenges when it comes to social issues.
Often they must give an opinion about a matter trending in the media—that’s a tough spot.
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, and the news goes viral.
When asked to provide a perspective about something happening in the world, it seems there are no right answers. You must pick a side. That might seem unfair, but this is the world we live in, and all brand reps should beware.
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We are seeing this more than ever in our polarizing political climate. Millions of social media users have their itchy typing fingers at the ready. They want to react with passionate opinions and jump aboard the latest boycott. Just ask the slew of brand managers who have been forced into crisis response mode by having a stance blow up, thrusting them into the amplified news cycle.
Crisis response planning
Such preparation is essential in today’s hypersensitive and sensationalized digital landscape. Managers of brands large and small, national and local, should be preparing for an unanticipated backlash surrounding a controversial social issue.
How? For starters, they must clearly define their brand values, stay consistent and maintain ethical standards.
There is a fine line when addressing social issues on behalf of a company, because usually there are two distinct positions on a given topic. However, a crisis resulting from expressing a position on a social issue can be viewed as an opportunity to reiterate your brand’s values.
When such a crisis occurs, it’s a chance to reinforce your values by responding to the situation in a pure, 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 vital component of moving your brand past the negativity.
A case study
Consider Chick-fil-A’s response to negativity surrounding its views on same-sex marriage.
S. Truett Cathy founded the chain in 1946 and implemented policies such as closing stores on Sunday to observe the Christian sabbath and setting up a private foundation to support faith-based organizations. Aligning with its religious values, Chick-fil-A opposed same-sex marriages.
In 2012, Chick-fil-A faced a blaze of disapproval for that position in media reports and on Facebook and Twitter. The company sought to develop a crisis response to maintain credibility with its stakeholders while appeasing consumers who supported same-sex marriage.
The negativity on social media and in traditional media was building, and government officials began making demands on Chick-fil-A. The fast-food chain responded to the negative posts and news coverage. Its ongoing responses asserted that it respects all people regardless of their views, referencing its biblical values, including its stand on same-sex marriage.
Virtue ethics can clarify the role that organizational values can play during a crisis.
In ” Effective Crisis Communication, Moving From Crisis to Opportunity,” authors Robert Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow and Matthew Seegar explain virtue ethics.
They note that people tend to act in predictable ways, following established patterns of conduct. An example the authors use is that a manager who has developed a habit of being honest tends to be honest in the future. Honesty, in this case, is a virtue of this manager.
In the case of Chick-fil-A, its religious beliefs underpin its core values. Because the brand demonstrates honesty and is upfront about its values, it can move through crises caused by social issues.
For the foreseeable future, it does not appear that the current media landscape and the sensitivities surrounding social issues are going to change. Brand managers should think about brand values, define them and stick with them.
They could be your most valuable tool when you’re up against the next boycott hashtag.
Chris Daley is director of brand and business development for Maroon PR and an adjunct professor in the business communication program at Stevenson University. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.