How to stay apolitical in our polarized era

Brand managers and PR experts want to avoid choosing a side, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be dragged into the political scrum. Here’s how you can safeguard your organization.

How to stay apolitical

For many brand managers in 2019, there’s no way to avoid the third rail of American life: politics.

SoulCycle and Equinox found this out the hard way last week after reports of an investor and owner hosting a big fundraiser for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

The L.A. Times reported:

When news broke this week that the billionaire who owns the parent company of luxury gym Equinox and fitness company SoulCycle was hosting a fundraiser for President Trump, the fitness community — and more specifically, the LGBTQ community — did not take to it kindly.

Calls for boycotts and gym membership cancellations spread online, and on Friday afternoon — the day of the fundraiser — dozens of protesters gathered outside the gym’s West Hollywood branch, holding signs that read “SoulCycle has no soul” and “Equinox supports a white supremacist.” Cars inching along a congested Sunset Boulevard honked a cacophony of support.

Both companies—which have won over customers with progressive, socially conscious branding—tried to find distance between their operations and the political views of their investor.

Ross also tried to defend his fundraising efforts.

The L.A. Times continued:

“I have known Donald Trump for 40 years, and while we agree on some issues, we strongly disagree on many others and I have never been bashful about expressing my opinions,” the statement said.

Ross said he would “continue to be an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability, and I have and will continue to support leaders on both sides of the aisle to address these challenges.”

However, the PR crisis has prompted many high-profile celebrities to cancel their memberships, and the trust between the companies and their consumers has been damaged.

Avoiding the mud puddle

Is it possible for brand managers to stay out of the fray? Aaron Kwittken, CEO of KWT Global, says it’s likely that organizations will be taking a closer look at their indirect partnerships and associations.

“You are probably going to see a call for more brands to disclose relationships that are more indirect through either investors or partners,” he says.

“Brands, through ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance] and other regulatory structures, are having to disclose more than ever before—which is good,” he adds.

Kwittken contends that brand managers are going to have to adapt to avoid being in the social media mob’s crosshairs. “With the public shaming and bullying of people for their political views,” he says, “brands will have to be more transparent.”

However, that doesn’t mean you have to cut people out of your life. “Transparency is one step,” says Kwittken. “The second step for Equinox and SoulCyle—which are progressive, well-meaning brands that have a pre-established track record of social value—is to double down on those.”

Kwittken stresses that this only works if your brand has an authentic connection to the cause. For Equinox and SoulCycle, he says, “they are doing it because they believe in it.”

Damned if you do …

Is there too much risk for brand managers who would like to take a stand on a social issue, but fear online backlash? The research seems muddy. Some reports show that consumers want their favorite brands to speak out on social issues. Others warn that there is a fine line between winning cheers and provoking jeers.

Kwittken argues that speaking out on a subject that you care about doesn’t necessarily increase your vulnerability. “There’s risk any time you open your mouth,” he says, “and you’re not going to please everybody. It’s better that they take a stand than not at all.”

He says Equinox and SoulCycle probably were a bit surprised by the Ross/Trump backlash.

One way to potentially counter the online mob is to highlight the stories of your stakeholders. “When you have these boycotts of these progressive brands,” says Kwittken, “you are also injuring potentially employees and partners.” By highlighting their stories, you can humanize your organization and perhaps stem the bleeding.

“All brand managers have access to building their own content right now,” says Kwittken.

Success through brand journalism

He highlights Life Time as one brand telling its story well. It has its own publication and shares content from its leaders to bolster its image online and off.

Kwittken advises: “Build purpose into your business. [Brand managers] can’t think just commercially anymore; they need to think about purpose and profit.”

When it comes to deciding on what issues to highlight with your platform, Kwittken says, “Focus on issues that are [relevant] to your business, like diversity and inclusion, LGBTQ rights or equal pay.”

Otherwise, he warns, your message might come across as self-serving evangelism. “In order for it to be authentic, it needs to be relevant to your business,” he says.

So, who’s doing it right? Kwittken looks at companies like Aspiration, a financial services firm that focuses on investing a social conscience. The company aligns purpose with business goals by refusing to invest money in tobacco or guns—but also spins its values into PR stunts.

“You are going to see more companies like that,” Kwittken says, asserting that this transformation is a good thing.

“I see upside in all these things,” he says. “It’s forcing brand managers and leaders to really focus on how they can put social purpose into their business, and what they are willing to align themselves with on behalf of their customer and what they won’t do.”

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