A Brave New World
What happens when brands get political
This article appeared in the June 2017 premiere issue of Hyperlink.
Hyperlink is published by Winning Edits.
By Jennifer E. Snyder
Navigating today’s political climate is not for the faint of heart, but operating a business becomes particularly tricky as everyone — from CEOs to consumers — attempts to position themselves on the right side of history.
Some of the world’s largest companies now find themselves deciding what statements to send out, what reassurances to make to employees and stakeholders, and how the ever-changing policies coming out of the White House may affect their business model. In today’s political climate, it’s a mistake to continue believing the long-held public relations myth that all press is good press, and lately, brands and their leadership teams have scrambled to decide how — and oftentimes if — they need to take a political stand.
Take, for example, the actions of Uber after President Donald Trump issued the executive order for his first failed travel ban on January 28, 2017. The ban restricted entry into the United States by anyone from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen. Protests quickly took shape at airports across the country that night, with one of the larger gatherings taking place at New York’s JFK Airport.
Soon after the protests began to grow in size, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance issued a public statement regarding their position of solidarity with those affected by the ban: “Professional drivers are over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers. By sanctioning bigotry with his unconstitutional and inhumane executive order banning Muslim refugees from seven countries, the president is putting professional drivers in more danger than they have been in any time since 9/11 when hate crimes against immigrants skyrocketed.” The alliance went on to note that the taxi drivers would be striking alongside the protesters. “Drivers stand in solidarity with refugees coming to America in search of peace and safety and with those who are simply trying to return to their homes here in America after traveling abroad.”
Following the designated strike window, a tweet from Uber’s New York Twitter account noted that surge pricing — which raises the price of rides during times of peak usage — would be turned off at JFK Airport. While the tweet appeared to be an attempt to inform users that wait times would likely increase and prices would remain the same, the tide quickly turned against Uber as Twitter users pointed out that the tweet could be read as Uber capitalizing on the chaotic situation. The hashtag #deleteuber started trending, and a backlash ensued. Recent reports estimate a loss of nearly a half million users due to the #deleteuber campaign.
In today’s political climate, it’s a mistake to continue believing the long-held public relations myth that all press is good press, and lately, brands and their leadership teams have scrambled to decide how — and oftentimes if — they need to take a political stand.
What received less attention from Twitter users was a company-wide email that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had sent out earlier that day — one he later shared publicly. According to the email, Kalanick’s concerns about how the ban would affect Uber drivers and employees from countries named in the executive order spurred action in the form of pro bono pay for affected drivers, along with a promise to use his position as a member of President Trump’s economic advisory group to voice those concerns in the next meeting.
Uber has since seen other media relations issues arise, but clarity of brand message during the incident at JFK Airport could have potentially helped the company avoid much of the fallout. And, of course, Uber is not alone in feeling the effect of the political climate. Companies like Starbucks and REI have opted to take a proactive approach by coming out with statements that detail exactly what each business stands for.
In the case of Starbucks, executive chairman and then-CEO Howard Schultz penned a public statement on January 29 that covered the brand’s support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, its plans to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years, its intent to strengthen partnerships with Mexico, and its continued commitment to offering eligible employees healthcare benefits.
Similarly, REI Co-op CEO Jerry Stritzke sent an email to employees and later made the brand’s statement public with the simple title: The Co-op is For All. In it, he writes about operating from a place of integrity during uncertain times. “We know our employee base and our membership span the political spectrum on any given issue,” he writes. “And we embrace respectful dialogue and debate. But it’s important for me to be incredibly clear about the following — we are an organization, and a country, built on inclusion. We believe we are better when we come together, when we are open and when we are welcoming. Accordingly, we do not support the executive order issued by the President on Friday regarding immigration.”
Executive orders and their potential fallouts aren’t the only challenge facing businesses post-election. Brands large and small across the nation, and the world, also find themselves making decisions on whether or not to separate business values from personal ideologies.
Sacramento, California-based Compliment, Inc. recently met with a small but pointed backlash when CEO Melissa Camilleri Anicich shared her reaction to the election. The gift brand seeks to uplift, inspire, and encourage through compliments on its products, and donates 5 percent of profits to the Compliment Scholarship Fund — a fund dedicated to scholarships for first-generation college students.
Camilleri Anicich tends to use writing as a way to communicate her brand messaging, of course, but also to work through how she’s feeling on a more personal level. “As a former public school teacher, first-generation college graduate, granddaughter of immigrants, small business owner, and woman, I had very strong feelings about [the 2016] election,” she says. “I’ve spent my entire career — first as an educator and now as a small business owner — advocating for kids and believing in the American Dream.”
She recalls feeling fairly hopeless and unsure about the future of the country, but also the purpose behind her brand, whose motto and registered trademark is “we rise by lifting others.” When she decided to share her personal thoughts about the election with Compliment’s customers via Instagram and the Compliment newsletter, she was surprised at the response.
Her brand lost more than 100 followers from Instagram and email in one day, the same day she posted about the election. “I’m careful and have strong boundaries about the things I publish online now that Compliment’s audience has grown to include so many people. But because our message has always been the same — encouragement, education, building up one another — I never imagined there to be such backlash when I published my carefully written and personal thoughts about feeling discouraged post-election,” she says, adding that a few people told her that writing about her feelings was inappropriate and that businesses should be completely non-partisan.
Camilleri Anicich also shares the lessons to be learned in the experience, which have more do with those who reached out in support of her message than those who decided to part ways with her company. She says that saying goodbye to those who don’t believe in the values Compliment, Inc. embodies was an opportunity to narrow down her customer and client list to those who truly understand what the brand is about.
“To me, this was much bigger than politics,” she says. “It was about humans showing love and care and compassion to other humans. All of what I choose to do online and offline comes from a very intuitive place. I try not to make decisions out of fear, but out of love. I have to get honest with myself and ask, ‘What is it that I’m afraid of in this moment?’ If the answer is that someone might not like me for speaking up for something I believe in, then that’s not a good enough reason for me to stay quiet.”
In February, Shopify’s CEO Tobias Lütke also decided not to keep quiet, but for somewhat different reasons. He released a lengthy public statement after receiving more than 10,000 emails regarding one particular shop hosted on the Canadian-headquartered ecommerce platform: the online store for the Breitbart News Network. The site, which is linked to the political far right, with reported ties to known white supremacists, uses the Shopify platform alongside more than 375,000 merchants — including Compliment.
According to the statement from Lütke, Breitbart is just one example of why he has separated his personal preferences from his company’s business practices. “I’m a liberally minded immigrant, leading a predominantly liberal workforce, hailing from predominantly liberal cities and countries,” he writes. “I’m against exclusion of any kind — whether that’s restricting people from Muslim-majority nations from entering the US, or kicking merchants off our platform if they’re operating within the law. Commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression. We use it to cast a vote with every product we buy. It’s a direct expression of democracy. This is why our mission at Shopify is to protect that form of expression and make it better for everyone, not just for those we agree with.”
In the statement, which is titled “In Support of Free Speech,” Lütke explains that he personally doesn’t like Breitbart or what it stands for. However, he clarifies the company’s position in allowing Breitbart to maintain an online storefront on the Shopify platform by comparing Shopify’s position to that of the American Civil Liberties Union — an organization that protects the constitutional right of free speech for all, regardless of whether or not the message is a popular one.
“To me, this was much bigger than politics,” she says. “It was about humans showing love and care and compassion to other humans. All of what I choose to do online and offline comes from a very intuitive place.”
So, what is a brand to do when it is, in fact, a personal brand and separating the personal from business is nearly impossible? Fine artist, author, and illustrator Lisa Congdon has faced those questions throughout her career, but the issues that have come up over the last election cycle were particularly tricky to navigate. According to Congdon, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been the main sources of friction between her personal values and those who support her work.
“I think my situation is maybe a little different than some people,” Congdon says of her experience in trying to decide what to share about her personal life, values, and political leanings on the social media platforms where she also promotes her work. “I’m openly gay. I’ve always been openly gay, so personal is political for me, just because of how I live my life and have always lived my life. I would have to completely separate my personal life from my work if I didn’t want to be political at all. When I talk about my personal life or my marriage, it is political to a lot of people. And it’s a statement because I’m a part of a group of people that’s been marginalized or that, traditionally, has not had the same rights as others have.”
Though she has always had the occasional negative comment to deal with, Congdon noticed an uptick in negative comments and reactions to personal or politically related posts in the summer of 2016 when she did some work for the Hillary Clinton campaign. She recalls receiving negative comments on social media from both conservatives and supporters of Bernie Sanders. Around the time of the Democratic National Convention, she decided she wanted to be part of the conversation — even if that meant losing customers and social media followers. “I want my brand to represent not just my point of view as an artist, not just my artistic aesthetic point of view, but also I want to be known as somebody who has ideas and beliefs and opinions about something,” she says.
After the election, Congdon felt an even stronger pull to voice her opinions, and her choice to speak up came after doing some soul searching about how she might feel if she ended up offending a segment of her following. “I’m a whole person, I’m an artist—this is how I’m choosing to express myself as an artist right now. I feel an obligation to say something. In fact, I think complacency is actually complicity, and I’m making a different choice.”
As an artist with a large following, Congdon also often collaborates with large companies on everything from commissioned work and online classes to book deals and cross-promotions. Much like her intentional decisions regarding her followers, she made a choice to continue sharing her political positions and concluded that, should a business partnership dissolve due to her political beliefs, she would accept the fact that she wasn’t meant to collaborate with that company.
However, she hasn’t had any partnership issues. In fact, she recently worked on a project with Stacy’s Pita Chips, which sponsored the International Women’s Day march in San Francisco on March 8, 2017. Congdon worked with the company on limited edition pita chip bags that would become a fundraiser for a women’s organization. “It was kind of interesting how I got this gig with this big advertising agency who was working with them that actually came out of my political work,” she says.
When it comes to keeping some sort of balance between taking a political stand and continuing to do the work she loves, Congdon still believes that there are those who follow her work because of her transparency. “I have a lot of followers who are incredibly inspired by or supportive of that work that I’m doing and the fundraising that I’m doing. A lot of people on the Internet who are part of my community are people living in places where they can’t talk to their neighbors about politics or put a Hillary sign in their lawn. And so the place that they go to feel supported or to find kindred spirits is on Instagram or even Twitter, Facebook. That feels like something I don’t want to give up.”
HOW BRANDS CAN NAVIGATE SENSITIVE TOPICS
Step 1: Make a Choice About Participation
The first step is to decide whether or not the brand should engage on a specific topic. Regardless of whether or not they’re synonymous with a personality, all brands are generally built upon a specific value system and, as such, are entitled to operate as they see fit, based on those values.
Brands must understand that, regardless of how or why they decide to participate in a sensitive discussion or whether or not they will take on a heated topic, there will likely be some fallout from that participation. Customers, clients, readers, and social media followers come from all walks of life and the chances of upsetting some of them are high.
Similarly, should a brand decide to not participate — to simply move forward with business as usual despite what is going on in the world — it could also receive pushback from consumers who feel as though the brand’s communications are tone deaf.
Whether a brand is a one-person show or a 3,000-person team with a board of directors and stakeholders, leadership needs to take world events and political climate into account and make timely choices regarding how the brand will respond.
Step 2: Understand the Nuance of the Situation
Once a decision is made, the next step is to formulate a response or statement. Before taking one position or another, it is key for a brand and its leaders to understand the many sides to any given issue.
While it’s acceptable to comment generally, the tense climate surrounding how brands show up in the media will allow people to poke holes in any statement that is less than well researched and constructed.
If necessary, brand leadership should be willing to dedicate staff or financial resources to researching the issue, thinking through the possible outcomes, and getting the brand’s response right the first time.
Step 3: Create a Communication Plan for Potential Press Coverage
No matter the type of response a brand opts to make, a communication plan should be put in place so that those who have interaction with the public, the media, or both, know exactly how to handle questions or concerns.
The plan should include, but not be limited to, elements such as the company values or mission, the position the company is taking on the issue, a statement from the owner or CEO, and a place where customers and members of the media can go to learn more.
Step 4: Communicate with the Leadership Team and Staff Members
Should a brand find itself taking a position on an issue, it is critical to inform members of the company at all levels. When a brand either takes a stand or opts to stay out of a national or international conversation, it is important to remember that everything — even public posts on personal social media accounts — can be used by journalists, customers, and the general public to draw conclusions.
While that may seem unfair, and disclaimers can be quickly drafted, it is the world in which businesses of today must exist. That is why all staff should be informed of the company’s choice, be given a written statement, and be instructed on protocol for social and traditional media engagement.
Step 5: Prepare for the Backlash
Again, no matter the topic or the stance brands choose to take, backlash is almost always a certainty. There will be people on both sides of the issue who find fault in a brand’s communication plan, business strategy, or value system. It is impossible to please every one of the estimated 7.5 billion people who call this planet home.
The best bet is for brands to keep their values, strategies, and plans handy in the event that backlash does occur. Having core values written and displayed is a great start. Politely defusing a situation is also a good skill to practice.
Step 6: Regroup and Refocus
In America’s current political climate, it can feel like the hits just keep on coming, but it’s important for brands to take a step back from the online media battlefield long enough to decide what’s working and what’s not.
If a brand has opted to stay away from politics altogether, but finds itself being pulled into the conversation anyway, the leadership may want to reevaluate the brand’s position. If a brand continually steps into online conversations where the political leanings of said brand perhaps don’t belong, take a look at whether that valuable staff time should be allocated elsewhere or consider a change in messaging.
Step 7: Remember that We’re All Human
With the rise of online interaction and news dissemination, it is easy to forget that there are human beings at the other end of whatever comes across your screen. Whether someone tells a brand how they feel via Twitter, a brand’s followers comment on an Instagram post, or a journalist reaches out to inquire about a brand’s position, it is crucial to keep human nature in mind.
People are nuanced creatures, and one bad choice, or tweet, or comment doesn’t mean a person is a lost cause. Nor does it mean that any of the people who disagree with a brand’s stance are setting out to take down the company. Many times, people simply want to be heard. Keeping that in mind will help any brand turn a negative experience into an opportunity to start a conversation.
That said, remember there are trolls out there on the Internet. There are humans who truly enjoy spending their time starting fights online. It’s okay to decide to not engage with those people. Your social media editor will thank you.
Listen to our full conversation with Soapbox’s David Simnick on what happens when brands get political, from the first season of our podcast, Hyperlink Radio, right here.
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