When a Controversy Arises, Should Your Brand Jump In?

Posted on by Ben Hordell

Feelings are running strong and deep over the NFL these days. The protest started by Colin Kaepernick over a year ago has boiled over into a national debate involving everyone from the players to the politicians to the products and brands associated with the league.

NFL boycott
The NFL boycott and controversy is a quandary for brands associated with the NFL.

Some prominent figures have called for a complete NFL boycott for failure to discipline players who kneel during the national anthem. For others, Kaepernick’s ongoing status as an unsigned free agent is tantamount to political blacklisting. How should marketers approach this third rail of public relations? That depends less so on your judgment of the merits of the controversy and more on when, where and how you choose to speak up, if at all.

It’s a Brand New World

Before social media, it was a lot easier to avoid the greater conversation. In 1968, Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos stunned the world by raising black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute during their awards ceremony.

Commentators and pundits flooded the media with their opinions as to the legitimacy and appropriateness of the protest, but no one found it compulsory to ask the makers of Smith and Carlos’s sneakers where they stood on the issue. Today, on the other hand, Nike must take responsibility for every athlete who endorses its shoes. Arguably, this is still part of a growing conversation, but it’s also dragging in people who have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

Brands, like people, have a voice in social media. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have created tremendous opportunities for brands to develop intimate relationships with consumers; relationships that create trust, loyalty and ultimately help build your bottom line.

However, over and over, this same sense of intimacy creates traps where brands feel compelled to enter a conversation just because it’s trending. Brands get FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out—as much or more than people do, and when there’s a lot of buzz around a topic, even a controversial one, brands want to get in on the action and ride that wave. And this is where they can get into trouble: misusing a hashtag, providing disingenuous or inappropriate expressions of sympathy or support, and then being skewered in social media. And good intentions are no defense. Brands on social media have a “hot mic” on all the time, and what they say is subject to partisan reinterpretation at any time.

To Speak or Not to Speak

When a controversy arises, brands must ask themselves, what’s our relationship to this? Do we have a place in the conversation? Does this debate have anything to do with our brand and our core values? Finally, brands need to ask: does this impact a wide majority of our consumer base?

If you’re a 50-50 brand, with consumers evenly divided on both sides of an issue, taking a side risks alienating half your base. And taking a side in a conversation that you don’t need to be in, or isn’t appropriate for you to be in, is an unnecessary risk.

Sometimes, you have no choice. Certainly, for the NFL, the controversy is not one that they sought out, but one that came to them. Brands that have a natural connection to the NFL and team sports may find themselves in a similar spot. Nike, Anheuser-Busch, Under Armour and others are working overtime to find a message that gives everyone something to agree with, without alienating half their base. They’re looking to find some common ground that lifts them above the debate and makes people feel that “yes, we should be able to get along.” It’s a challenging needle to thread, one that combines elegant PR with sensitive mediation skills.

So, what’s the best advice? First, before you respond, make sure that you belong. If you have nothing to say on the topic, best to say nothing. But you may not have that option, and it’s important to remember that, in the age of social media, silence is also a statement. If the controversy touches on your brand’s core values, the basis of trust between you and your customers, then it’s time to stand up and be counted.

Benjamin Hordell is a partner at DXagency

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