When the company you keep can put your brand at risk

Emma Monks -

When the company you keep can put your brand at risk

Social media platforms are bracing for what is widely expected to be an inflammatory and highly contentious election period, anticipating a firestorm of hostile online exchanges about politically- and socially-charged issues. Against this backdrop of belligerence, brands could face unprecedented reputational risk, which very well could originate from the organization's most valued stakeholders.

This risk comes not only from the direct actions of those people but from the detrimental behavior and incendiary actions or speeches of those closely associated with your brand: influencers, investors, third-party business partners, and suppliers.

As politics and social issues become more prevalent and more heated, and those conversations happen in and around your brand online, you are expected to keep your organization, and its people, out of trouble and avoid the reputational risk and business disruption that comes with guilt by association. 

Easier said than done.

Keeping an eye out for politically charged or divisive commentary that could link back to your organization is a daunting prospect. More than half of the world’s population uses social media and today spend an average of two hours and 24 minutes every day across eight social networks and messaging apps, according to eMarketer

With all of this social use comes an incredible amount of digital chatter that has to be sifted through. In an already hectic year, social media, digital, and communications teams have to comb through all of that content, figure out what is legitimate, and what is harmful—and how the bad could be whipped up by influencers to create a real crisis. 

Before any incident explodes into a crisis, there comes a defining moment when the match is struck, and the fuse is lit. That moment can be as disparate as killing a lion, hosting a political fundraiser, or posting about an ultra-premium vodka on social media. 

An individual’s actions can create brand risk

Like the chaos theory concept that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in China could cause a tornado in Kansas, a single incident that is amplified on social media can have a far-reaching, unanticipated effect on a brand. For better or worse (mostly worse), a small group of determined people can provoke widespread negative backlash, boycotts, and pressure campaigns against a brand. 

The killing of Cecil the lion, a famous attraction for wildlife tourists in Zimbabwe, by an American trophy hunter, provoked an unprecedented global response on both traditional media and social media. Just 10 days after the first reports of the kill, mentions of Cecil the Lion in social media reached 87,533. After 10 weeks, the total had grown to nearly 700,000.

The hunter at the center of the controversy, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, became the instant target of an online shaming campaign that forced him to close his dental practice temporarily. The Facebook page of his clinic was flooded with angry comments and threats, his practice was Yelp-bombed, and an online petition demanding justice for Cecil gathered more than 12,000 signatures.

The outrage spread rapidly beyond the dentist to U.S. airlines. Delta, United, and American either announced new bans or reiterated standing policies on the transport of animal trophies. Sandwich company Jimmy John’s scrambled to deal with their own crisis after pictures surfaced and were shared online, allegedly showing its owner hunting big game

The backlash even reached back to the national economy in Zimbabwe, affecting both safari operators and wildlife tourism. “The culprits have painted Zimbabwe with a dirty brush,” said Zimbabwe Tourism Authority chief Karikoga Kaseke. “We are now seen as people who do not promote and protect animal rights.” 

Being guilty by association creates bans and boycotts

SoulCycle, long known as an LGBTQ+ friendly company, was met with widespread social media condemnation that led to a boycott after news emerged that Stephen Ross, a billionaire investor in the company, hosted a fundraiser to reelect Donald Trump that took in $13 million.

While skeptics predicted the boycott wouldn’t last, class attendance at SoulCycle dropped by seven percent over the ensuing months. As James Hamblin wrote in The Atlantic, “SoulCycle took on the weight of Trump’s bigotry and intolerance, as well as his inaction on issues of climate change, gun violence, and health care.”

Months after the boycott hit, SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan resigned. The brand quieted social media activism by announcing on Instagram that it would host free community rides with equivalent proceeds from the classes going to local charities.

Influencer marketing can make things more complex

Influencer partnerships are particularly tricky for brands trying to increase awareness and loyalty during a time defined by the pandemic, social justice protests, and political divisiveness. Even in the best of times, handing brand control to an influencer or brand ambassador can be a big risk.

Diageo, one of the world's largest producers of spirits and beers, came under fire for deceptive advertising after 50 Instagram influencers published as many as 1,700 promotional posts for Cîroc vodka without openly disclosing their commercial partnerships.

An investigation by truthinadvertising.org called out the posts for breaching advertising rules because they lacked the hashtag #ad as required by the FTC. Some posts bypassed age-gating technology, allowing minors open access to liquor marketing.

“It’s time that Diageo starts acting like the responsible corporate citizen it says it is,” said the nonprofit’s executive director Bonnie Patten. “And if it needs help learning how to comply with the law, TINA.org is confident that the FTC can teach the spirits giant the lessons it needs to learn.”

Identify adverse behavior before it causes damage to your brand

The future financial and reputational health of your organization is dependent upon constantly monitoring its brand’s presence on owned social media pages, as well as the wider surface and deep web. That responsibility is made more challenging for some by their brand’s willingness to work with audacious influencers to build and maintain their social media following.

In the apparel industry, for example, fashion houses often rely on social media influencers who have relatively free reign on their own platforms to create content around a brand’s campaigns. This can create reputational risk for a brand when the influencer says or does something that creates widespread controversy that then gets amplified online.

This sort of atypical risk can extend to the undesirable behavior of employees. Although coarse comments from a high-profile executive could attract more immediate negative attention and cause more long-lasting damage to a brand, employees also pose a risk. With the leveling effect of social media and the increased attention paid to statements perceived as racist or bigoted, offended internet users don’t take long to brand employers as complicit in the noxious comments of employees.

The good news is that, for most of these potential troublemakers who can create blowback for your brand, their public social footprint precedes them. Proper early-warning risk intelligence can find past offensive posts of everyone who surrounds your organization—internally and externally. It detects chatter and discovers influential criticism, negative media scrutiny, controversial stances, and adverse public opinion of your brand.

Recent events have shown that now is the time to take a hard look at the company your brand keeps. In doing so, you can protect it from incidents that might bring it down because of who it is associated with—and what they might do.

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