How Brands Can Navigate Politics and Populism on Social Media

In my last commentary The Problem is not Fake News, Social Media, I focused on what is driving the politics and populism on social media. This time, I will focus on what brands can do to blunt negative perceptions during these uncertain times. This analysis can also apply to NGOs as well. I would encourage you to read my last commentary before you read this one.

As a former Communications Director, I have had to deal with all aspects of communications: design, PR, media relations, media buying, website and social media management. I also navigated through PR disasters, social media and otherwise. I am sharing this from my experiences.

First, let’s look at two high profile case studies of social media blunders:

  1. 19 Kids and Counting was a TLC reality show that aired on 2008 spotlighting the huge Duggar family led by Jim and Michelle. The show received solid ratings. Eventually, information surfaced that one of their sons, Josh Duggar, had allegedly molested five girls (and some were his sisters). Things got worse when it was revealed through the Ashley Madison hack that Josh had an account. The show was eventually cancelled in 2015. Several negative hashtags trended on Twitter about the family. A spin-off was attempted with a social media campaign but advertisers pulled their support because of the negative press (print and social media) from the last reality show.
  2. The LiveStrong Foundation was started in 1997 by Lance Armstrong. At that time, it was called the Lance Armstrong Foundation. The celebrity cyclist was known around the world for his competitive image and for beating cancer. He helped the foundation become a global brand overnight with its iconic yellow wristband and well known partners such as Nike. It was flying high until the cyclist’s doping issues were exposed. He was stripped of his Tour de France victories and banned for life from the event. Since then, donors have fled the foundation, they have downsized and burned through three CEOs. The primary way this foundation built its brand was through Lance’s celebrity and social media. Because of this, they had to ask the question, do we need to rebrand? To separate themselves from the disgraced cyclist, they rebranded in 2012 and became the Livestrong Foundation. Although they are still functioning, they have not been able to achieve the notoriety they once had.

Both of the above examples are extreme situations. Since both have become brands, there are also other players that have also been exposed to bad publicity. The Learning Channel (TLC) owns the 19 and Counting reality show so they and their advertisers were implicated. Nike dissolved its contract with Lance Armstrong because of the doping issue to avoid being implicated.

But why would any investors/partners be implicated?

We are living through an activist era right now. Just as we remember the 1960s as a protest decade, this decade will be remembered in a similar way. But this time its different. A large number of U.S. citizens are flexing their consumer clout by re-assessing their consumer relationships and attempting to align them with their personal beliefs. This isn’t a new idea. The Montgomery Bus Boycott successfully did the same encouraging African Americans to walk and carpool to work until Alabama’s racial segregation laws were struck down. But the internet has accelerated this possibility because people can communicate ideas faster and public/private information about companies is so easy to find.

Once a small business/organization understands the four elements that undergird social media mentioned in my last commentary, they can build a social media ‘personality’ for their brand that fits with their mission and builds relationships with their consumers. Here is what you need to consider:

Social Media Policy: Decide how you want to engage your audience on social media. This policy involves understanding what you will emphasize. There are things you will talk about and things you won’t talk about. It also governs who will administer the social media account(s), posting/comment limits and detail employees’ relationship to the company’s social media account. (Employees are often limited in what they can say about the company online, i.e., financial records, internal reports, marketing plans, etc). Click here to see the Adidas Group policy.

Social Brand Personality: Decide the tone of how you want to engage consumers. Brand personality is an extension of your brand and should take on human characteristics. What keywords are important in your brand personality? How can these keywords shape how you communicate and what kind of visuals you use? The goal is to make consumers feel good talking to you like you are a person instead of a company. Here is a good definition of brand personality.

Social Media Crisis Plan: When PR disaster strikes, what is your response? Having a plan in place is crucial. This plan should assess the level of the threat, who is notified, who will respond, the tone of the response and when to respond. Depending on how well known the crisis is, media may contact you. Different companies respond differently to a social media crisis. In 2010, Gap exchanged its very iconic logo for a very generic one. Social media exploded and dragged them through the coals. Within six days, they reverted back to the original logo. airbnb changed its logo in 2014 and was also excoriated on social media. Charges of logo plagiarism and lady parts in their logo swirled around the internet. airbnb weathered the storm and now, barely anything is said about their logo. Pay attention to social media flare-ups with other companies and observe how they handle it.

Trending Topics: Understanding what consumers are talking about on social media is important. Hashtags work on all social media platforms. Monitor what is being said about your company (if anything) and look for trending conversations that align with your company values. But make sure you observe first before commenting. For example, after much research, I developed a Facebook schedule and plan for a nonprofit client in the addiction recovery industry. This is a very depressing area to function in right now. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that fatal drug overdoses are on the rise. How do you communicate hope in a media environment like this?

Here is the social media bombshell: Brands should not develop a brand personality that is rooted in negative emotions.

Take a cursory look at television ads: how many of them traffic in using negative emotions to sell? It is an unwieldy trait that may tap into deep seated emotions that have no connection to your content.

Milo Yiannopoulos is a modern provacateur and speaker traveling to university campuses claiming to challenge political correctness. Because of his caustic speech, students have protested his presence on their campuses. What’s ironic is Milo’s gay but writes for alt-right newsite Breitbart News. But a video clip recently surfaced that showed him supposedly praising pedophilia. Although he apologized, a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) invitation was rescinded, a Simon and Shuster book deal was canceled and he resigned from Breitbart News. Milo’s brand personality was rooted in being inflammatory and toxic.

His fall from grace is not surprising to me. Why?

Happiness is the main driver of social media sharing. In his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Dr. Jonah Berger, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says that the more positive an article is, the more likely it was to be shared. Angry screeds can be popular for a short time but eventually people will turn away. Why? Because negative emotions will remind us of other things that makes us angry and eventually elevate our biochemical responses. This can lead to depression, hypertension, stress, etc. Who wants to feel this way?

(President Trump put himself in a precarious situation because he rode a wave of angry populism into the White House. How will his supporters feel when he doesn’t deliver on some of his promises?)

The more you engage your audience, the more you can learn about what makes them happy. But you also learn how unpredictable they are. Be aware that there is a pitfall at both extremes. If you connect with your audience too well, a company can lose sight of the separation between commerce and personal engagement. Oversharing can result which places the company in a compromising position. This is where leaks happen. Spending too little time getting to know your audience can mean you will be viewed as a distant entity. It is here where consumers feel more comfortable challenging a company’s values because there is low value in the relationship.

Depending on what is trending on social media and in society, the goal is to occupy what I call the shifting political middle. This is a digital space where current hot button topics are discussed and debated with a diversity of ideas and outcomes. It is like a crowdsourced digital thinktank with no overarching consensus.

Consumers are feeling more empowered occupying this space which once was the domain of political elites. But the real truth is that consumers allow themselves to get angry all the time. But brands are supposed to take the high road. However, there are a few brands like Starbucks and Patagonia that show flashes of passionate activism. Aligning personal decisions with consumer purchases cannot be done in all areas of life but consumers will most likely attempt to do this with trending causes. Right now, these are in the shifting middle:

Communicating universal aspirations that intersect with these above causes is the way to go.

Nike has been communicating its aspirational ideas linked to athleticism, competition and perseverance that intersect with some of the causes in the shifting middle. They recently released a campaign advertising the first sports hijab (head covering) for muslim women. They are showing their sensitivity for female athletes in Muslim countries who are required to wear a hijab. Nike’s goal is to inspire females in the Middle East to exercise more and have access to proper sportswear in spite of the barriers they face. (We also cannot ignore the money Nike stands to make.)

Either way, still tread lightly on social media and monitor your posts. Be aware that the shifting middle may change within the course of a year. (Did you notice that racism is not on this list? Two years ago, it would have been. If you want to know why I did not put it on here, feel free to ask.)


Hi, my name is Ron. I am new to medium. I am a brand consultant, designer and educator. Thank you for reading this commentary. Your likes and comments are appreciated. Check our my design portfolio at

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