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Consumers play a major role in shaping the public perception of brands, influencing their actions and holding them accountable—and it’s a double-edged sword for brands. On the one hand, a vocal audience can help brands shape their offerings and content. On the other hand, a brand misstep can be costly.
Over the last several years, call-out culture has become a pervasive part of social media. Honestly, it’s hard to think the last time there wasn’t a trending hashtag to boycott a brand or public figure.
In 2020, we’ve seen boycotts in response to brands voicing public support for social justice organizations like Black Lives Matter. Conversely, we’ve seen brands get called out for not being vocal enough in the fight for social justice. Brands with out-of-touch ads risk being “cancelled” and even seemingly benign campaigns can trigger waves of criticism.
Take Mr. Peanut, for example. The 104-year-old anthropomorphic legume met its fiery death in an advertisement ahead of the brand’s Super Bowl LIV spot. But the proximity of the ad’s release to Kobe Bryant’s death left a bad taste in people’s mouths, forcing Planters to apologize and pause all campaign promotions. Just over seven months later, Peanut Jr., the evolved version of Baby Nut who was born from the ashes of Mr. Peanut, celebrated it’s 21st birthday, to the shock and confusion of consumers on social. While some fans “shellebrated” the event, some (like me) wished the adorable Baby Nut didn’t age so quickly. Others were so salty that Planters kept pushing the Peanut Jr. storyline even after the initial backpack, that their calls to #BlockMrPeanut began trending.
Why is this still going like im legit wondering like if yall want to write a fan fic go ahead but dont blast it on Twitter
— insane stuff on the internet (@slayerofstrange) August 19, 2020
Mr. Peanut and its parent company, Kraft-Heinz, will emerge unscathed following this rather confusing ad campaign, but other brands that don’t generate billions of dollars in yearly revenue like Kraft-Heinz might be so lucky.
No brand is immune to call-out culture and social media managers may feel part of their job is navigating land mines just waiting to explode. The permanency of what’s said or shared on the internet means there are no take-backs in this day and age. But brands can recover and regain consumer trust. If you find yourself defending your brand after being called out, incorporate the following steps into your social media crisis plan and get back on the road to redemption.
Be proactive: Move quickly and listen closely to your audience’s reaction
When your brand has been called out, being proactive is essential. Even a single, seemingly small or isolated issue can turn into a flurry of memes, Retweets, comments or a trending hashtag, so it’s important to move quickly and respond ASAP.
Social media managers may be able to address some comments on their own. However, depending on the nature and scale of the issue that’s being called out, you’ll need to involve your public relations team, your boss and your legal team.
Let them know what your audience is saying. Are they demanding action? What are they most concerned or upset about? Consider building a social listening topic centered around the issue at hand to measure sentiment, track the scope of the conversations and provide further insights for your leadership. Listening can ultimately help you shape a public response that directly addresses your audience’s feedback.
Be authentic: Collaborate with your team to craft a humble, human response
If a brand ignores complaints on social, some consumers will try contacting them on another channel—but 35% of consumers will boycott a brand altogether. But a poor response can actually be more damaging than no response at all and increases the chance of consumers boycotting by 43%.
There’s nothing worse than a passive stance, vague language or a “fauxpology.” Suppose a food brand is taking heat for consumers getting sick after eating their products. If that brand leads with “We only source the freshest ingredients and take food safety seriously,” you feel the “but” coming to deflect blame.
As individuals, we’re taught to apologize and own up for our mistakes. As brands, it’s important to do the same, but there are sometimes broader implications. For legal reasons, brands sometimes can’t say outright that they take responsibility online (especially if an accusation hasn’t been verified or needs to be internally investigated). That’s why getting your legal and PR teams involved quickly is essential. However, as the social media manager, you’re the voice of your customers and the person who sees brands get called out on social every day. Bring your recommendations to the table to help your brand develop the most authentic and human response possible.
In some instances, an apology will be the right move. One of the earliest examples of a social media apology that is widely recognized as a proper response came from JetBlue. Back in 2007, the airline had to cancel hundreds of flights due to a massive snowstorm, which left thousands of people stranded. Instead of blaming the weather, the CEO humbly explained the brand’s promise to customers with specific examples of what they were doing to make it right and how they would be prepared, not if, but when they failed next.
If a brand responds well, they stand a chance of winning over consumers who initially shared complaints.
Be vocal: Bring forth your deep understanding of your audience and their expectations
Transparency goes a long way in recovering from a crisis or call-out. In a Sprout Social survey, we found that 89% of people say a business can regain their trust if it admits to a mistake and is transparent about the steps it will take to resolve the issue. Chances that consumers will forgive a mistake are even better if your brand already has a history of being transparent.
While it’s part of a social media manager’s responsibility to help come up with short or long-term solutions, it’s not something you should be doing by yourself. Bring your intimate knowledge of your brand’s audience and insights from their conversations on social to leadership to help determine next steps.
If your ad campaign draws negative attention and is deemed insensitive, you probably need to pull it from circulation. But it’s hard to part ways with creative campaigns that so many people have invested time, money and effort into. If your leadership is hesitant or resistant to remove a campaign from social, but you know your audience wants it gone, make your voice heard. Report comments, sentiment analysis, trending keywords, and other relevant social data to leadership to help them make that final decision to pull a poorly received ad. Not only that, but you can also foreshadow the consequences of leaving that campaign up and running.
If the issue is larger, like your brand being called out for lacking diversity, failing to take a stance on major social movements or fostering a toxic culture, your brand will need to do more than just make a statement on social. In a recent survey on social media activism, we found that people expect real change. There’s little tolerance for performative allyship and more than half of consumers expect brands to announce new initiatives, goals and involvement in industry-wide coalitions.
As the social media manager, you’re responsible for telling the story of your brand’s commitments and sharing details about the progress that’s being made. What consumers want to see most is that your brand is following through on those promises. When brands fail to uphold their commitments on social issues, 42% of consumers will shop elsewhere, 29% will boycott altogether and 19% will continue to share their negative opinions on social. The stakes are high, and you have the power (and social data) to hold your leadership accountable.
Be patient: Track your brand’s recovery over time
Recovering from a brand blunder will not happen overnight, so be patient and persistent in keeping your brand’s promises. Use social listening sentiment analysis to track your recovery over time and continue to inform leadership about insights like spikes in positive or negative sentiment, engagement stats or anything that you believe might derail you from the road to recovery.
But also, be kind to yourself! You may be managing the messages and telling the story, but ultimately, certain decisions are out of your control. If your brand becomes embroiled with more serious scandals, it’s critical to escalate the situation and get someone in leadership involved. If hateful messages come through the inbox, don’t take them personally. Brand crises are a natural accelerant to burnout, so it’s important to rest, recharge and re-engage with the things that make you happiest whenever possible.
Feeling burnt out? Step away.
🎧 Listen to your favorite playlist
👟 Take a walk
🍵 Make yourself a cup of coffee or tea
— Sprout Social (@SproutSocial) August 24, 2020
And if your brand is getting boycotted for taking a progressive stance on an issue that you and your company leaders truly believe in, don’t sweat it too much. The consumers that share your values and have big love for your brand will double down on their support for your company. They’ve got your back.