Different causes around the world are associating themselves with everything from music to popular brands. But those associations can lead to serious, negative impacts. For example, in the United States neo-nazis have become associated with Tiki torches and Papa John's pizza following recent rallies and flippant comments made by senior executives. The consequences of such associations can be damaging, but are avoidable according to the CEO of CP Communications, Catriona Pollard.
Our world is becoming increasingly politicised and divided. Companies need to be careful of what they say and do, and have a tested strategy in place in case their brand is hijacked.
A recent article at The Washington Post highlighted the affect of an off-hand comment made by the CEO of the Papa John's pizza chain. During an earnings call, he made reference to falling sales which he blamed on football players’ protests against racism and police brutality. That lead to a white separatist group, Identity Evropa, tagging them as the official pizza of the alt-right and "Sieg Heil Pizza”.
"The first thing is that, as a result of social media, brands need to be aware of racial and political issues. With social media ideas spread much quicker. Homegenised groups can share information and collect together and galvanise. It's no longer a time when brands can sit on the fence when it comes to social and political issues," said Pollard.
While they could stay silent in the past brands need to be more active in such matters. And those values need to come from the top.
"From a strategic communications perspective, companies need to have a stance, even if they don't say that publicly until they need to," added Pollard.
But what happens if you aren't ready. For example, the company making the tiki torches that were used by neo-nazi protestors, was blindsided by the way their product was seconded into that movement.
"Organisations, from a cultural perspective even if they don't state their position publicly, need to be more sophisticated around what their cultural beliefs are. They need to be really careful about the statements they make. CEOs and leaders need to be very careful about what they say in public about political, racial and cultural issues. They can't sit on the fence. They need to make statements about their cultural beliefs, even if they differ from the CEO's beliefs. It's more dangerous to be sitting on the fence".
Pollard had to put that into practice recently during the lead up to the same-sex marriage survey. As an organisation, she wanted to ensure her beliefs and her company's beliefs were clear. One of her staff members wrote an article about inclusivity and equality which Pollard promoted. Even though she knew this would polarise some of her large social media following. The result was many followers wrote directly to Pollard voicing their disagreement.
"That's what happens when you don't sit on the fence".
Coming up with those cultural beliefs is not something that can be conjured during a crisis. Pre-planning and discussing political issues and corporate beliefs need to happen at the management table so that, if a crisis occurs, you are on the front foot from the beginning.
What happens if your brand is hijacked by a political party or issue you don't believe in?
"You have to be very, very clear and very quick in creating and making a statement around your political cultural beliefs and disassociating yourself from that issue. Words aren't enough. You also have to take action".
Pollard said that in the marriage equality debate, companies giving away free t-shirts and making financial donations were concrete ways of ensuring the world understood precisely where a company stood.
It is critical that companies cultivate a strong social media presence that engages with people. It needs to be more than just selling products. It can be a very effective crisis management tool. A robust and well thought out social media strategy is a "no brainer" said Pollard. Social media strategy needs to include work being done by the company in the community that substantiates the words in their stated political and social beliefs. Then, there's a strong brand story that can be used during a crisis.
In the case of Papa John's pizza, even though the company has made a vigorous statement that denounces the association made by the neo-nazi group, the group continues to say that, even though Papa John's had to make the politically correct statement, deep down, they are supportive of the alt-right group.
In that case, Pollard said it is important to continue to proclaim your cultural views publicly and to back that up with action.