Americans’ awareness of, and relationship with, politics has shifted. At a time when everyone feels empowered to share their opinions via social media, businesses are no longer exempted from engaging in the discourse.
Gone are the days when companies and public figures could remain silent while cultural and political debates raged on. And gone are the days when companies could shrug off a political scandal by issuing a tersely worded statement and laying low for a few months.
Business leaders who understand the opportunities, expectations and pitfalls of our hyper-political, hyper-connected world will best navigate it.
Do Consumers Care What Companies Think?
In a recent survey, 76 percent of respondents said CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it. Further, 74 percent of American respondents agreed a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the communities where it operates.
Social media has fueled these trends, giving consumers a channel to directly and publicly pressure brands to change practices, speak up on issues or respond to crises and scandals.
Authentic Engagement is Key
Political engagement requires a clear strategy and understanding of the climate, players, issues and messaging.
Companies that use social engagement as an avenue for product placement are likely to stumble (think Pepsi’s widely criticized racial equality Super Bowl ad). A more genuine approach is to engage on a specific issue, either directly or through a coalition of like-minded companies.
Woman-led dating app Bumble worked in 2019 to pass a law in Texas to fight digital sexual harassment, providing an example of successful issue advocacy by a consumer brand. Bumble’s political engagement fits within its mission to empower women and change the culture around male/female relationships. Another example is Dove—the brand known for its body positivity campaigns—and its partnership with UNICEF to empower and educate girls in underprivileged areas around the world.
Strategic public policy engagement gives businesses of all types and sizes the opportunity to enhance their brand awareness and engage with consumers outside of the traditional buyer/seller relationship.
Playing Defense, Not Offense
Even companies with a proven record of authentic political engagement are at risk for a politically charged attack on their brands. Anyone—from the CEO to a contractor—has the potential to create an exposure through their behavior, personal political beliefs or affiliations. Also, a brand’s own activities may unknowingly hit a nerve with a subset of consumers and garner backlash.
Either scenario can lead to calls for boycotts and intense scrutiny by the public or the press. Amplified by constant social media and news media, mishandled issues can mushroom into major public relations crises that can seriously affect a company’s bottom line.
How companies anticipate and respond to crises, both internally and externally, can fundamentally change the outcome of the situation. Understanding what to look for, remaining proactive and having the right team in place makes all the difference.
Preparation is Key
Proper risk management requires companies to first understand where their vulnerabilities lie. As social, cultural and political values evolve, issues that have remained unproblematic for decades can suddenly flare up, leaving your team flat-footed and struggling to respond appropriately.
A company’s public relations vulnerabilities may stem from a leadership figure’s personal political views, financial contributions or official positions held by relatives. Another source of vulnerability are decisions made by the company itself.
No matter the origin, identifying and understanding these inherent risks is key. Conducting an internal “opposition research” study is a good place to start. In the political arena, campaigns often undertake this type of research on their opponents to identify potential lines of attack. Campaigns also undertake these studies on themselves, to gain a clear picture of their weaknesses and prepare accordingly. This research creates a roadmap for how to respond, depending on a company’s risk tolerance and media relations savvy.
Act Quickly and Openly
When a crisis flares, waiting out the political storm is not a strategy. These issues do not go away—they live on the internet in perpetuity.
A crisis communications plan outlines the appropriate process to follow when a business’s reputation is in jeopardy because of negative media exposure. Ensuring the appropriate people chain of command is in the loop about all public messages is critical. This includes your executive, legal and communications teams.
Responding in a timely manner is critical, as time is of the essence. Unnecessary delays may convey that the business is attempting to dodge responsibility or failing to acknowledge that an issue is occurring. A simple holding statement indicates that a company is taking an issue seriously and will provide additional response and information at a later time. This can be especially helpful if the crisis has led to a loss of life.
Relaying that the company is taking serious, tangible steps to address an issue with the affected parties, working with law enforcement, emergency personnel or the appropriate authorities, and making an effort to be transparent about its activities are all critical to managing public perception.
Communicating internally with your employees is just as important as communicating externally with the press. Employees in customer service roles will face a deluge of questions, and establishing a protocol and holding statements can help them manage incoming requests. Further, employees need to understand what is appropriate—and not appropriate—to share on their own social media accounts and with others outside the organization.
No matter the context, brands are either made or broken by how they respond in these situations. Those who are dismissive of crises and scandals, slow to respond or seem aloof can impose serious, self-inflicted harm. Those who make their positions known early and clearly, and remain firm in their values stand the best chance of recovery.
Lucy Nashed is a vice president of state government relations at McGuireWoods Consulting, where she helps public and private sector clients build communications strategies to navigate the intersection between public relations and public affairs, capitalize on opportunities and respond to threats.