Is Your Brand Prepared to Handle a Political Social Media Crisis?

The 2020 presidential election is almost upon us, and in this particularly contentious atmosphere, brands should carefully consider the implications should they choose to participate in political dialogue. With the uptick in social media usage in a COVID-19 world, it’s especially important for companies to have a clear, proactive game plan for how to address public inquiries related to the organization’s political affiliations and points of view.

Our Brands and Ballots resource outlines considerations for assessing your organization’s vulnerability and preparedness for this election cycle from a communications standpoint. Attempting to remain apolitical in the current environment is no longer a surefire way to protect your brand from being subjected to scrutiny.

Recently, Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue’s supportive comments about President Trump’s leadership turned into a movement calling for individuals to boycott the brand with globally trending hashtags like #BoycottGoya and #Goyaway. Meanwhile, a slide from an internal presentation at a Topeka Goodyear plant made national headlines for banning employees from wearing “Make America Great Again” apparel onsite, which prompted President Trump to call for a boycott of the brand.

Even brands who haven’t publicly disclosed their stance on political candidates or initiatives can be subjected to scrutiny, like Greyhound, which found itself entangled in the immigration debate due to policies that allowed United States Border Patrol agents to search its buses for undocumented riders.

To prevent or mitigate the potential fallout brought on by social media chatter that can quickly evolve into a reputational crisis, it’s best to have a comprehensive understanding of your brand’s risk factors and your audience’s sensitivities, as well responses to scenarios that might occur.

Here are a few social media comments that could trigger a reputational threat to your business and warrant a prepared response plan:

  • Political Donations: e.g., “I’m so disappointed to see your CEO made a huge contribution to [presidential candidate].”
  • Political Opinions of Employees: e.g., “I’ll no longer be supporting your organization thanks to this social media post by your employee about defunding the police.”
  • Lack of Political Stance: e.g., “How come you’re not commenting on the election?”
  • Previous Controversy: e.g., “Your company doesn’t care about workers’ rights. I haven’t forgotten about the lawsuit.”

As you ready your brand for the intensifying election cycle, keep these best practices in mind:

Make it personal, people are listening

People use social media to make their voices heard. Whether it’s positive or negative feedback, it is important to demonstrate that the organization is listening. Customize each response to the poster with the intention of changing one-sided commentary to a two-way conversation. Acknowledge the situation and apologize if necessary.

Take time to respond – but not too much time
Remember that online is forever, so while time is of the essence when responding to a post, it’s important to be thoughtful and concise in your response. Take the time to consult with your internal team – or seek external counsel from an agency like Jackson Spalding – to ensure your message will resonate the way it was intended.

However, consumers will expect near real-time responses, and the longer something potentially controversial goes unaddressed, the more opportunity it has to gain unwanted traction. Ideally, you shouldn’t keep the poster waiting for more than a few hours.

Honesty and transparency will develop long-term trust
People are more perceptive than ever and can easily tell if a company is withholding information or dodging a response. And, the two-way communication on social platforms makes it easy for them to call brands out for it. Communication on these platforms requires a balance between what can be legally shared and what the audience wants to know. Be as transparent and detailed as possible to let consumers know how you are addressing their concerns.

Consider your brand’s history
Social media chatter doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and decisions about how your brand responds to comments of a political nature should be informed by how you’ve previously addressed these scenarios. Even if you are evolving your approach or stance on a particular issue, it’s important to stay true to the ethos of your organization and your brand’s personality. For example, a brand like Ben & Jerry’s might be more inclined to engage in potentially controversial discussions than a more politically neutral brand like Kellogg’s.

Know when to escalate or take it offline
The way you respond to potentially controversial social media activity should correlate to the severity of the situation. Your community managers should be equipped with clear guidelines of what constitutes a crisis and how to react accordingly by pulling in key decision makers or consultants. We recommend a tiered approach to flagging these scenarios based on whether the issues are individual, generating broader online discussion or poised to result in public outcry.

The source of the comment is another factor that should affect how you interact with them. If the person has a large or highly engaged following, your response might be more likely to be scrutinized. Think hard about the repercussions of engaging with someone with a highly partisan stance or history of inflammatory content.

Develop social media guidelines for team members or employees
Most brands recognize and support the right of team members to express themselves through personal websites, blogs, online forums and social channels. To help provide boundaries of what is and is not appropriate for employees to share online, social media guidelines are an essential tool. These can include encouraging disclaimers like, “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of my employer,” and should detail clear do’s and don’ts of posting online as a representative of your company.

This year has been marked by volatility, and this election cycle will surely add to the tensions. Be proactive and prepared to protect your brand’s reputation whether on social or in the headlines.