June 28, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Navigating brand reputation management in a charged climate

Navigating brand reputation management in a charged climate

In a hyper-politicized media and entertainment environment, it has become increasingly important for brands to think well beyond typical questions of how brand values translate to target audiences and instead think of potential brand reputation issues that might arise out of unplanned external events.

Protecting brand reputation when things go wrong

Despite how it feels, this is not an entirely new phenomenon or concept that a brand would have to grapple with—for example, Ryder Truck saw its corporate name, logo, and signature yellow trucks featured in a large number of articles after the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in April of 1995.

After this sort of negative brand publicity—however accidental or inadvertent on the part of the brand—how does a brand respond? Or should they not respond at all, and wait for the issue to subside? This topic came up recently in a discussion with some friends who are PR practitioners, after a Home Depot rental truck was used in a terror attack in New York City back in October that killed eight people and injured nearly a dozen others.

Similar problems arise for brands when their ads are placed near questionable content. This issue of placements near risky—or risqué—content is substantial enough that CMOs are now pushing digital advertisers for more transparency on where their ads are placed, and looking for assurances that their ads won’t appear next to unsafe content. The rise of such “brand safety” issues is now a major concern for marketers and will likely continue to be an issue as we head into 2018. (This topic was explored in-depth in the For Immediate Release podcast #115, on which I was a guest.)

For the most part, it is unlikely that the negative coverage will result in lasting damage to a brand’s reputation. Unless there was significant negligence on the part of the company, the public by and large understands that in these situations the brand itself is not at fault.

From a measurement perspective, this would be important to factor into sentiment analysis, particularly over the long term. Having a brand associated with a large volume of negative coverage that showed no lasting effect on sales or reputation must have the context factored in, lest a brand start believing it is impervious to consumer backlash.

The bottom line: for companies that play no part in the decisions that led to adverse coverage, there are unlikely to be any long-term ramifications to brand reputation.

What about brand values?

Things get a bit trickier to navigate when a brand makes a decision to affirmatively take a stance on an issue; even topics that are fully aligned with a brand’s values can be problematic when they are hot-button social issues, or perceived as overtly political.

Examples of companies taking positions on controversial topics that align with brand values but still raised a public outcry are myriad. The now-seemingly-annual Starbucks cup controversy, Target’s transgender bathroom policy, Chick-Fil-A’s public stance on gay marriage, Chobani yogurt’s decision to employ new immigrants, New Balance’s tweets on the TPP, Cheerios—the list is long—have each seen waves of support, then backlash, then anger over the backlash—there are so many waves it’s hard to avoid motion sickness.

Brands like to be thought of as “doing the right thing,” but it is unlikely that companies would be public about issues if those issues didn’t align with their target audience. The potential for backlash was likely discussed, evaluated, and considered. It’s a classic cost-benefit analysis decision: does the potential benefit of our brand being perceived as holding these values, which are important to us and our target audience, outweigh the potential cost of customers we may lose based on our stance?

Trickier still is when a brand takes a public stance that manages to attract an audience of support a company would rather not have. Papa John’s Pizza found itself in this maelstrom recently after stating in an earnings call that a reason for declining sales was anger at the NFL protests (Papa John’s is an NFL sponsor). This was followed by endorsement from alt-right groups—in turn causing Papa John’s to disavow said endorsement in a series of Tweets.

Influencers must be considered too

Also under the umbrella of the “brand safety” concerns mentioned above are the role and behavior of influencers. After a series of problems that can be loosely grouped into a category of “influencers behaving badly,” some brands are going to the trouble of developing influencer whitelists. These lists are comprised of pre-approved, pre-screened influencers who have track records of achieving brand goals—and behaving.

As this AdWeek piece points out, carefully chosen influencers are most likely going to reflect brand values, and it’s probably going to be a rare case of an influencer expressing contrary views that negatively reflect on a brand after a campaign has started. Still, you are dealing with humans (sometimes celebrities) who have opinions on highly charged topics, which means that the potential for a flareup or crisis exists. The best that you can do is to do extensive due diligence when selecting influencers, understand what your audience’s limits are, and crisis plan so you’re prepared for any just-in-case scenarios.

Brand reputation management: not for the faint of heart

This polarization is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Social media makes it easy to share hot-button stories, and the fact that people don’t tend to read past the headlines* before reacting exacerbates the problem. Issues flare quickly and spread widely.

As if brand managers and PR professionals didn’t already have full plates, the challenge of navigating thorny and potentially complex policy topics is now a very real part of everyday reputational work. The best way to deal with these issues is twofold: first, make sure that potential ramifications are discussed before wading into a debate; and second, work a similar scenario into your company’s crisis communications plan so people know the drill and how to react and respond if it’s ever necessary to do so.


* Yes, I did read the article, inclusion of this was deliberate.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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