Getting political: is this a good comms strategy for your brand?

Getting political: is this a good comms strategy for your brand?

Hazel Watts

Hazel Watts

Since the elections in November, President Trump has publicly attacked over 60 organisations (and counting)—including Microsoft, General Motors, BBC, Boeing and Sony—putting marketing and PR teams on the defensive to protect their brand’s reputation and share prices.

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Brands that cooperate with the Trump administration have faced immediate and widespread backlash. #DeleteUber was trending after news that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick would join Trump’s board and that the brand had allegedly undermined a taxi strike protesting the immigration ban.

Meanwhile, other brands have found it to be more lucrative to go on the offensive and publicly speak against or for Trump’s policies. Within a few days of the Uber backlash, Lyft took advantage of its rival’s circumstances as it was announced that the brand would donate $1m to the American Civil Liberties Union. The move boosted downloads of Lyft’s ride-sharing app over Uber’s.

Execs are feeling the pressure to get involved in political conversations – especially when we see more news of brands taking a stance, whilst reaping in quick media wins and customers. However, this strategy isn’t right for every brand. So, when is it appropriate to get involved? Ask yourself these questions when you are deciding whether to contribute to political conversations.

  1. Is the proposed stance in line with your brand’s core values?

First you need to ask yourself whether taking a side is supportive of your brand’s core values. If it doesn’t accurately reflect your organisation, you may hurt your public image in the long run.

To protest against Trump’s immigration ban, Starbucks pledged to hire 10,000 refugees, Airbnb announced that it would provide free accommodation for those affected by the ban, and a staggering number of tech executives joined forces to support the legal battle against the executive order.pic2

However, if these movements aren’t tied to any concrete brand values, savvy consumers and media will soon realise that your brand’s public displays of social responsibility or political involvement are only masking a communications and marketing strategy designed to help sell.

Even worse is if your organisation has acted on opposite values in its recent history – expect that you will be found out. It was recently revealed that major tech brands—including Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft—who have added their names to the legal brief against Trump’s immigration ban were also found to have donated significant sums to Trump’s inauguration.

If the stance is not consistent or relevant to your brand’s values, your brand will be seen as opportunistic and untrustworthy—and this will do more harm than good to your brand’s reputation in the long-run.

  1. Will taking a side alienate a significant proportion of your customers, employees or stakeholders?

IBM and Uber have recently been under fire for offering public encouragement, cooperation or support for the Trump administration, losing support from customers and employees. Uber lost so many customers from the #DeleteUber protest that the CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from Trump’s board.

Meanwhile Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz, who has increasingly associated his brand with political issues, publicly backed Clinton and spoke out against Trump – this has ultimately resulted in a major backlash from Starbucks’ Republican customer base.  Earlier this month, Schultz’s pledge to hire 10,000 refugees resulted in a #BoycottStarbucks protest – while this has attracted a large amount of positive PR, the move ultimately alienated a portion of Starbucks’ customer base.

When you associate your organisation with a political view, you force your customers, employees and stakeholders to have a strong positive or negative view of your organisation. Customers will judge your organisation based on its political affiliation, instead of how well they enjoy your products or services. Employees dissatisfied with their organisation’s political stance will protest, stage walkouts, or even resign—ultimately hurting your organisation’s productivity and team morale. Stakeholders who do not believe an organisation is in line with their beliefs will withdraw support.

If you want to make a public stance that is in line with your company’s values and you see a long-term benefit, you must decide if your brand is prepared to take any resulting backlash.

What to do if you are pulled into the fray

If you or your organisation are suddenly pulled into the fray – for example, if your brand is on the receiving end of a political tweet – you will need to have your crisis communications plan straight. This needs to include a strategy that encompasses clear communications guidelines, lines of responsibility (usually involving your legal and/or PR teams) and swift response times involving a senior spokesperson.

This happened with Wrigley. In September, Trump Jr. likened Wrigley’s Skittles candy to Syrian refugees:

pic3When engaging with a high-profile political persona or issue, careful consideration must be involved. Correct any misinformation with verified sources, clearly state your neutral position (provided that is your position!) and end the conversation. Additionally, the response needs to be respectful, swift and authentic. In the case of the Skittle’s tweet, parent company Wrigley followed this methodology to craft an appropriate response within hours:

Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.

Trump is only a few weeks into his presidency, so this is only the tip of the iceberg in regards to the controversies organisations will need to navigate. However, these circumstances aren’t only limited to the other side of the pond. In a time of increasing uncertainty and divisive politics occurring globally — on our side of the pond we have the unravelling of Brexit, the ongoing refugee crisis and a number of upcoming European elections — we will be sure to have our own political storms to contend with this year.

Quick marketing and PR wins may lead you to follow the herd in your communications strategy, but the short-term gains may be trumped by long-term repercussions. Before getting involved in the political conversation, ensure that it’s in the best interest of your brand’s long-term success.

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