Should Businesses Take Social or Political Positions?

It has become a familiar pattern: a cultural event erupts across traditional and social media; politicians, activists, and observers quickly stake out their positions; and any company involved or associated with the incident faces a choice between a public response, which risks alienating a segment of its customers, or silence and the potential for a drawn-out public battle, which risks long-term reputational damage.

As public discourse in the U.S. becomes increasingly politicized and polarized, the inciting event could be almost anything, from a school shooting or natural disaster to a more mundane celebrity tweet or ruling in a court case.

In the age of social media these cultural touchpoints can ignite almost instantly and are often impossible to foresee. Yet companies of all stripes can just as quickly become impacted by such incidents – with the potential for suffering significant reputational and bottom line harm. No one at Sanofi, which manufactures Ambien, could have anticipated the company would be roped into a Twitter discussion about a TV actress’s tweet attacking a former Obama Administration official.

Even so, consumers increasingly expect companies to take stands on important social issues, and public backlash for those that do not, or that promote values not shared by certain consumers, can be swift and strong. For example, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, companies across a wide and varied range of industries found themselves forced into the national conversation over gun control and gun-related policies.

With all this in mind, businesses should consider undertaking more expansive crisis planning based on a broader array of potential social issues, beyond traditional business issues. Such planning should focus on the issues they would be willing to take a public stance on, the rationale behind their positions, and how and under which circumstances they would communicate these views. In considering a wider set of potential flash points, enterprises should identify who their positions might upset, who would be natural allies, and how to mitigate reputational risk and exposure in such situations.

Organizations should also carefully audit all business partners – as well as the other executive positions and board memberships held by their current directors and senior executives – for possible vulnerabilities that may lead to unwanted attention and questions. This audit should cover the company’s marketing relationships, the other businesses it invests in or who invest in it, the people and/or products who serve as its public face, and the organizations it supports via philanthropic initiatives.

Companies with a plan in place to handle these cultural touchpoints will be in position to respond quickly and help shape the initial media/social media narrative. In these cases speed matters – a swift decision may look authentic and engender public goodwill, whereas a decision made only after public protest might appear as though the company is bowing to public pressure rather than acting on principle. But thorough, thoughtful decision-making should not be sacrificed to speed, or the company may find itself backtracking or struggling to explain – while back on its heels – muddled decisions.

Keurig learned this the hard way. In response to pressure from activists angry at Sean Hannity’s support for Roy Moore after allegations of inappropriate relationships with minors, Keurig pulled advertising from Hannity – only to face the ire of Hannity supporters, who posted videos of themselves smashing Keurigs and throwing them out of windows. Caught in a political storm unrelated to the coffee industry, Keurig tried to backpedal from its withdrawal decision while not endorsing either Moore or Hannity – and frustrating consumers, activists, and observers on both sides of the issue.

Foreign-based companies who do business in the United States must also familiarize themselves with the current American political environment and key issues, and should consider working with local communications advisers to help prepare for and navigate such eventualities.

Today’s political climate, and the speed with which one post on social media can become a national touchpoint, has added a new dimension to crisis preparation, and organizations of all stripes would be wise to evaluate their positions and preparedness for such situations well beyond the basic set of business issues that have traditionally been the focus of crisis prep efforts.