One of the unexpected trends coming from the divisive 2016 Presidential election was how numerous companies, which have traditionally stayed neutral, were pulled into the throes of politics. Some got attention for having leaders who were vocally supportive of President Donald Trump, while others found themselves the sudden target of the president’s criticism on Twitter. Regardless, these companies raised an important question in public relations: What do you do when you’re tied to a controversial character, whether intentionally or not?
Stop and Think
When a company is thrust into the media spotlight, the first move might to be to immediately release a statement defending itself or clarifying the situation. Although there might be an impulse to respond with haste, it is best practice to wait, take a deep breath, and think strategically about the short-term and long-term implications of your response. Time is of the essence in these situations, as waiting too long may hurt the company’s reputation, but there should never be a scramble to get a response out within minutes of the start of the controversy. Rushing to get out a statement or response will only hurt the company in the long run.
Don’t Be Seen as Capitalizing on the Situation
If a high-profile actor, such as a politician, endorses a company or brand, it may be appealing to take advantage of the attention and weave it into marketing and communications efforts. In fact, NPR aired a segment recently on how some companies are devising marketing strategies around Trump’s support of their brands or strategies. Such an approach is not recommended as it will likely alienate a portion of customers, employees, and other stakeholders who do not hold the same values or political beliefs as President Trump and his administration.
When a company promotes its strategies to capitalize on being aligned with Trump’s rhetoric and policies, such as keeping jobs in the country, it takes the same risk as companies engaging in greenwashing: appearing to be disingenuous and piggybacking for the sake of gaining attention. Such a tactic can have negative repercussions, including the deterioration of trust in the brand or even customer boycotts.
Back in November, New Balance, the Massachusetts-based shoe and sportswear brand, found itself in hot water after its vice president of communications told The Wall Street Journal that it supported President Trump’s opposition toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This stance made sense for the company – it felt that the deal would bring undue burden on itself since it manufactures its shoes in the United States. However, coming less than two weeks before the election, it was not an appropriate time to tie itself to a political issue. The company immediately felt the impacts – its social media channels were flooded with irate comments and consumers across the country pledged to boycott the brand.
Stick With Your Stance
As important as it is to avoid capitalizing on Trump’s praise, it’s equally important to refrain from becoming overly defensive against his criticisms. After it was uncovered that Linda Bean, an heiress of L.L. Bean and a member of its board, donated $60,000 to Trump’s campaign, customers began calling for a boycott of the brand. The company issued a strongly worded, but non-polarizing response, on its Facebook page, stating that the company does not take a political stance, and that Bean’s opinion did not represent that of the brand. Days after, Trump thanked Bean for her support and encouraged his followers to purchase from the brand.
For some companies and organizations with a clear political stance, there may be an inclination to push back. That is a decision that must be made internally, keeping in mind how that strategy will impact all stakeholders.
Regardless of which pathway is chosen, companies must stick with it and not waiver between responses.
Learn From It, Then Get Right Back to Business
Once the dust has settled on the situation, it is vital that the company analyzes its response, determines the points of strength and weakness, and wraps up the key learnings to review if another crisis should occur in the future. As noted in this piece on Bloomberg, being prepared in the first place is key for companies to prevent from taking a misstep.
When the crisis ends, companies must get back to work. They have customers and supporters who are depending on their products, services, and missions, and they need to continue to serve them.