2022 brought no shortage of high-profile crises for brands and celebrities alike.
Under Elon Musk’s thumb, Twitter has been marred by continual controversy, including imposter Twitter accounts buying verified status and pretending to be brands—a subscription service that later relaunched with a higher price tag—and at one point, Musk even mentioning bankruptcy. From an internal operations standpoint, Musk can anticipate arbitration cases en masse from his sudden and abrupt staff layoffs.
Worst of all? Musk’s takeover brought about an instantaneous rise in hate speech on Twitter that’s downright dangerous. Unchecked, hate speech online can lead to real-life violence, and arguably, from the Colorado Club shooting to threats directed at synagogues to highly misrepresented data on hate crimes, it’s not hard to see it already has.
Hate speech isn’t stopping at random trolls on Twitter either. Kanye West (Ye) has been progressively falling into an antisemitic web, spewing nonstop hate on whatever media platform that will have him. While the rapper has since been suspended from Twitter and Clubhouse, he’s still getting unfiltered airtime on shows like Tucker Carlson. Ye has an audience of millions he can spread his ideas to, and his words can lead to real-life violence.
Ye and Musk haven’t gotten off scot-free. Brands such as Adidas, Gap, Balenciaga, JP Morgan Chase, CAA and Foot Locker, among others, have all dropped Ye. Not to mention Balenciaga, General Motors, Eli Lilly and Playbill have all left Twitter, and the platform had to offer incentives in order to get advertisers back on board. These aren’t the only examples of brands ending an influencer deal due to hate speech, or vice versa. Nike terminated its deal with Kyrie Irving after the NBA player promoted an antisemitic film on Twitter. Kim Kardashian put out a statement regarding her work with Balenciaga after the brand released abhorrent ads related to child abuse and safety.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '23 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Brands are facing a widespread conundrum that is really just getting started. If a company partners with the wrong celebrity or influencer, they’re leaving themselves wide open to public criticism and potential crisis. Just look at Adidas, the company got slammed in the media and its stock took a hit for not acting soon enough after Ye’s antisemitic remarks and it stands to lose millions from pulling its Yeezy line.
So, how do brands work with celebrities and influencers while avoiding a significant media crisis should they find themselves entwined with the wrong person? The first step seems obvious, yet isn’t always so simple, and that’s doing due diligence on whoever you plan to partner with. Just like when choosing a brand name or company identifier, a company must do research to ensure the person they’re choosing to work with isn’t going to offend or alienate audiences. Likewise, brands should consult with experts and leaders of various interest groups and marginalized communities. Companies must try to do everything in their power to make sure they aren’t about to team up with someone harmful to the safety of others and subsequently to their brand.
Whether or not a brand is international, the Internet is a global place, meaning the reach of advertising, marketing and communications materials will be global in most cases. And with the rise of what folks like to call “cancel culture”—or what I just call the consequences of your actions—it’s now more important than ever for brands to be mindful of their audiences and their varying perspectives. Of course, it’s impossible to account for everyone’s sensitivities, but ensuring that you’re avoiding association with hateful words or actions by vetting a partnership to a variety of people prior to release can help avoid disastrous missteps. I can’t stress this enough: crisis communications is something you invest in before a crisis ever has a chance to happen, not after. Your strategy needs to be proactive, not just reactive so you can prevent needless and costly disasters.
That said, regardless of how much planning and research you do ahead of time, it’s still possible to do your due diligence—and partner with a scandal-free celebrity—only to find yourself entangled in a crisis because of their actions down the line. Working with influencers and celebrities will always pose some level of risk, and mistakes happen. We’re all human, after all. Yet, there are ways to prevent or lessen public backlash if a partnership turns out to be a liability.
One of those crucial tactics is keeping your finger on the pulse of the celebrities your brand is working with—so you’re tapped into public opinion and aren’t taken by surprise—and act quickly should a crisis begin taking root. The second there’s wind of a partner beginning to act erratically or say problematic things, start evaluating your options. Should a partner begin spreading hate speech, it’s already well past time to end your work with them. Take Adidas, for instance; the brand’s most bewildering mistake was waiting so long to speak up. In actuality, Ye had been displaying and was already infamous for his erratic, troubling behavior going back years, and enormous, glaring red flags had already been raised. So, it’s hard to believe Adidas was genuinely surprised by the highly predictable progression of Ye’s behavior, and I’m baffled by the brand’s prior lack of response and planning. Years of burying its head in the sand aside, in regard to Ye’s more recent comments, Adidas made a grave error by choosing not to speak up immediately. Timing is always critical in a PR crisis, but it’s even more vital when dealing with dangerous rhetoric and hate speech, behavior that so blatantly crosses what should be an uncrossable line. Not immediately incorporating and addressing negative feedback can lead to a crisis in any situation. However, in the case of hate speech, missing the initial window of denouncing the actions of a celebrity, influencer or brand you’re working with can lead to serious, lasting repercussions.
While it really shouldn’t have ever gotten to this point, even if a company makes the mistake of not immediately speaking up—as Adidas did—it isn’t necessarily the end for the brand. There’s still an opportunity to speak out as long as it’s done in a timely and thoughtful manner, and in a way that owns up and apologizes for the situation—including the delayed response. This includes taking responsibility, expressing genuine remorse, holding accountability and having an action plan detailing how to prevent making the mistake again in the future. Acknowledgment, responsibility, honesty and transparency will go a long way.
After what we saw in 2022, partnering with a celebrity, influencer or even a brand in 2023 can seem like a scary thought. But it doesn’t have to be. As long as brands do their research, act quickly and own up to any potential wrongdoing, it can go a long way to solving a crisis. This year will be a new year for brand opportunities, and, hopefully, one that builds on kindness in our world, not on hate.
Eric Yaverbaum is CEO of Ericho Communications. He’s also author of the industry-standard bestseller, “PR for Dummies,” as well as “Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOS.”