Consumers seem to be champing at the bit to boycott businesses these days.
According to research from Cone Communications, 76% of consumers say they’d be willing to boycott a company if they disagree with values it advocates. In recent months, we’ve seen boycotters accusing companies of being racist, unpatriotic, anti-family, anti-LGBTQ or politically wrong-headed.
Some of those charges have been based on false or misleading information. Calls for a boycott of Olive Garden recently spread on Twitter after someone claimed the restaurant chain had donated to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The company responded promptly to correct the misinformation.
“We don’t know where this information came from, but it is incorrect,” Olive Garden posted on Twitter. “Our company does not donate to presidential candidates.”
Customers vowed to boycott Home Depot after the store’s co-founder, Bernie Marcus, pledged to back Trump’s re-election bid. The company tried to distance itself from the co-founder—who retired more than a decade ago and does not speak for the company, Home Depot spokesperson Margaret Smith said in a statement.
“In fact, as a standard practice, the company does not endorse presidential candidates,” she said.
Why many boycott efforts don’t affect sales
A handful of boycotts have significantly damaged businesses, but most quickly fizzle out and cause little or no sales hit. A swift, decisive response can often prevent a potential crisis, or support for your brand may prompt a counter-boycott and soften damage.
Despite their vows on social media, customers have difficulty breaking shopping or dining habits. Boycotters may not be the company’s targeted customers, despite their strong beliefs. The PETA-led boycott of KFC had little impact, for instance.
“With a few exceptions, most threats to boycott do not impact the cash register,” Whitney Dailey, vice president of Cone Communications, told Twin Cities PBS. “They are, however, a powerful means to pressure companies to take action.”
Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, activists called for a boycott of the National Rifle Association and its affiliates. In response, companies such as Best Western, Enterprise Holdings and Delta Air Lines severed ties with the NRA.
The dangers of negative coverage
Even if revenue remains steady, companies can and should be mindful of the potential long-term harm of reputational damage—especially if a boycott prompts negative media attention. News coverage can fuel social media commentary, which prompts additional coverage. Headline-grabbing boycotts can affect stock prices and profoundly affect how a company is perceived. Take Chick-fil-A, for instance.
“The No. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” says Brayden King, professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University and an Institute for Policy Research associate.
Here’s how to avoid and respond to boycott campaigns:
- Monitor your online mentions. Close monitoring of both social media and news media can alert PR teams of negative comments, unfavorable coverage and calls for boycotts. The sooner you’re aware of accusations, the sooner you can respond.
- Dig into social media analytics. Social media analytics, including sentiment analysis, can reveal why people feel anger or frustration toward your brand. Animosity could be due to the company’s values—or perceived values—rather than faulty products or services.
- Wait it out. Given the recent proliferation of boycott calls, the fast-moving news cycle and short attention spans, a “wait-it-out” strategy can work. “One has to wonder if the effect of activism targeting companies is becoming diluted, in the sense that we can’t pay attention to any single controversy for very long,” King says. However, if the boycott is based on misinformation, issue a correction—as Olive Garden did.
- Understand and promote your company’s values. Determine what your organization stands for, understand what your target audience cares about, and take a stand on issues that align with your customers’ core values. Brands that lack an identity become vulnerable, says Winston Binch, an executive at Gale Partners. “There are unfortunately no knockout punches when it comes to handling boycott movements,” he advises. “But if I could sum it up in just a few words, make sure that your brand has a soul. Soul sells.”
- Respond professionally. Appearing defensive, angry or smug can make the situation worse. A measured response is best. “Always communicate politely with a smile. Say, ‘I understand. Thank you very much. We’re concerned about that,’” advises Richard Levick, chairman and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm Levick.
- Create a PR crisis plan. Any business can face a boycott, so make sure you have a plan in place to respond with aplomb. A smart PR crisis plan names a crisis response team with an assigned spokesperson, and it outlines how information will be communicated to internal and external stakeholders and the general public.
There’s no way to prevent a boycott from coming your way, but there’s plenty you can do to minimize and neutralize the threat to your business.
A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.