How should brand managers respond to tragic events?

Many are still reeling from shootings in Dallas and other U.S. cities that took place last week. For those wanting to respond, here’s advice.

Recent tragic events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas have caused many to speak out—including organizations large and small.

Andrea Hardalo, Entrepreneur’s social media editor, reported:

On Tuesday, Alton Sterling was shot by police officers in Louisiana after receiving a call regarding Sterling allegedly carrying a gun. The graphic video of his death has gone viral in what appears to show Sterling, a black man, shot in the chest after being restrained by police officers.

The next day in Minnesota, Philando Castile, another black man, was shot and killed by a police officer after being pulled over for a broken taillight. His fiancee, Diamond Reynolds, broadcast the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook Live, which has also gone viral.

On Thursday evening, five police officers were killed in Dallas during a protest against police brutality. This sniper attack is said to be the deadliest incident for U.S. law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001.

As politicians and citizens alike took to social media to respond, celebrities also used social media to express their views, and several companies took a stand.

Google’s staff gathered for a discussion:

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, posted the following:

Twitter created an emoji for the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and several business leaders and agencies tweeted responses:

Ad agency Wieden + Kennedy darkened its website on Friday, displaying the following message:

The number of organizations—and their leaders—getting involved in controversial issues by expressing opinions or taking stances is growing.

What can brand managers take from this—and should you speak up?

Rising trend of branded opinions

Melissa D. Dodd, assistant professor of advertising/PR at the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida, wrote in a 2015 Forbes article:

In a study we ran using Qualtrics, we found that Americans are 8.1% more likely to purchase from a company that shares their opinions and are 8.4% less likely to purchase from a company that doesn’t. In other words, it’s no longer just about whether a person likes the product or service, it’s about whether they like the company’s stance on certain pertinent issues.

In fact, research by the Global Strategy Group indicates that 56% of Americans now believe corporations should engage in dialogue surrounding controversial social-political issues.

A January 2016 study released by the Global Strategy Group revealed that 88 percent of consumers believe that companies have the power to influence societal change, and 78 percent feel that companies should address issues facing us.

Global Strategy group created a chart of the public’s reaction to companies’ stances on several controversial topics, from same-sex marriage to race relations, from big-game trophy hunting to climate change:

The study explains that consumers are more likely to embrace businesses’ taking a stance on economic issues, because they “feel it is much more appropriate”:

Like Trump and the PGA, some of these divisions are obvious. Democrats and Republicans have distinctly different reactions to Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public denunciation of the Indiana law giving businesses the right to refuse service to a customer based on their religious beliefs—producing a polarization score of 51 points.

But responses to other stances are more nuanced, like Delta’s announcement that the company would no longer transport big game animal trophies in the wake of Cecil the Lion’s death. To those on the Left, this is an appropriate response to a big news story (producing a positive brand impact score of 36 points with Democrats). But to some Republicans, it is perceived as an infringement on the rights of hunters and produces a negative brand impact score of 6 points—a 42-point gap between the parties.

Meanwhile, some issues that polarize our politicians tend to have a less polarizing effect when framed by business. For example, IKEA’s and McDonald’s positions on the minimum wage are less divisive, as the distance separating Democrats and Republicans on this issue is much smaller. This is in part because the minimum wage is a less polarizing issue among the public. But it is also because Americans feel it is much more appropriate for businesses to take positions on economic issues than social issues— especially when the issues affect their business.

Jonah Sachs, chief executive of Free Range Studios, wrote in The Guardian:

When [brand managers] weigh in, they publicly prove that these issues have reached a tipping point of acceptability – and, in so doing, they increase the rate of change. A perfect example is the issue of same-sex marriage. In 2014, the Huffington Post reported on 27 major companies that boldly came out in favor of marriage equality. Taking this position wasn’t a safe stand, but it was a highly viral one.

When a brand puts a stake in the ground on a controversial topic, such as carbon pricing, gender equality, racial justice, or even excessive corporate power, it sticks its neck out, adding fuel to a cause and challenging its customers to rally behind it.

The brand becomes far more participatory, making room for its customers to take on a heroic role by fighting for a more altruistic, tolerant, selfless world. The pro-social brand doesn’t say: “Look what we’ve done. Now buy our stuff.” Instead it says: “We’re willing to take a stand. Stand with us.”

EVENT: Learn to find your leader’s real voice at the 2016 Leadership and Executive Communications Conference.

Avoid backlash by planning your stance

Asking consumers to align with your company can backfire, however. In an Entrepreneur article, author Carol Roth wrote:

Taking a stand in relation to divisive issues may cost you customers. If your beliefs are strong enough, you may not care, but it is a real risk that you should consider.

One way brand managers can avoid backlash is to make sure that their participation in controversial issues is spurred by a cultural shift, not a political beef.

Sachs wrote:

Pro-social branding is not about meddling in electoral politics; rather, it’s about taking an accurate read of the pulse of today’s culture. For decades, society has been trending toward wider empathy, diversity and citizen engagement. Pro-social branding helps to amplify that movement.

Krystal Overmyer wrote in Skyword’s Content Standard that brand managers and executives should also consider their brand’s identity before taking part of a controversial issue:

What are the brand’s values, and how might those values translate to social issues? Not all brands may need to comment on the social topics of the day. But chiming into the discussion may be appropriate when it aligns with a brand’s identity.

Overmyer also wrote that brand managers wishing to speak out publicly must carefully plan out sensitive content and prepare to handle detractors:

Brands should be ready to defend their content, if needed. Starbucks explained its rational behind the Race Together campaign; Wells Fargo reiterated its support for same sex families in light of Graham’s comments. Brands should be ready to double down on their position when called for.)

Topics: PR

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