By Sarah Fister Gale
May. 3, 2017
When United Airlines forcibly dragged a passenger off a jet in mid-April to make room for its own personnel, a concerted howl arose from consumers, pundits, politicians — pretty much anyone who saw the video either through social media or on their evening news.
The Chicago-based airline became the poster child du jour for how to obliterate a reputable corporate brand practically overnight. Still, United isn’t alone in this 2017 corporate branding gaffe-fest.
PepsiCo was the butt of social media’s wrath after Kendall Jenner diffused all manner of civil unrest with a can of cola. Then there was skin-care company Nivea’s short-lived “White is purity” campaign stoking similar online outrage.
They almost make a distant memory of Uber’s January uber-fail to drop surge prices encouraging riders to choose the ride-hailing service instead of striking New York taxi drivers protesting President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. The not-so-subtle move to profit from the strike and Trump’s ban of course triggered a viral #DeleteUber campaign that led some half-million customers to drop the app.
They are powerful examples of social media’s influence in an era where consumers align with brands that reflect their values and are willing to wreak havoc on those that don’t. In the current social climate, making public statements vilifying a demographic or supporting a political stance unpopular with customers can be particularly risky, said Whitney Bowman-Zatzkin, director of Flip the Clinic, a nonprofit health care organization in Washington, D.C. She has worked on several “crisis in messaging” campaigns within the health care space. “It’s a very charged political climate and people are quick to respond emotionally,” she said.
Almost 70 percent of U.S. adults now say they support boycotting a brand due to conflicting political views, and 59 percent would boycott a brand’s products or services if they strongly disagreed with the brand’s stance on a particular social issue. Immigration, women’s rights, and diversity and inclusion rank as the top three issues they are likely to support.
The millennial consumers that many companies now covet are more liberal than any other generation, according to the Pew Research Center, and they are savvier at rallying their peers in support of brands they love and against those that provoke their ire.
Organizations that have spent years building a brand image around diversity and inclusion don’t want that reputation damaged by an insensitive, off-the-cuff comment from a senior executive, said Deena Fidas, head of workplace equality for the Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit civil rights organization working to achieve LGBTQ equality. “As a company, leadership needs to invest in tangible policies and practices that support these programs and encourage education and accountability to be sure everyone understands why it is important.”
Some HRC partners also require executives to actively participate in LGBTQ goals by giving speeches or sitting on advisory councils as part of their performance expectations. This ensures that diversity is embedded in the corporate culture, and their participation helps them engage with these efforts, making them less likely to say things that don’t align with the brand image.
Even with the best training and a commitment to D&I, there is the risk that someone will say something that snowballs into a public relations disaster. Few people know this better than Kristen Anderson, chief diversity officer for Barilla Group, the Italian food company based in Parma, Italy. Barilla had developed a strong diversity and inclusion culture, but in 2013 chairman Guido Barilla told a radio program host that he wouldn’t feature same-sex couples in his company’s commercials because he prefers the “traditional” family, and that “if the gays don’t like it they can go and eat another brand.”
Consumers were livid and boycotts were launched. He immediately apologized, recanting his comments and promising to do better, but the damage was done.
“It was a difficult time,” Anderson said, but rather than issue a press release and hope the problem would fade away, Barilla used it as an opportunity to improve. The company engaged HRC and other external advisers to help them evaluate their D&I programs and accelerate their goals.
That included implementing a D&I survey and creating a board of employees to identify how the company could do better with its diversity and inclusion efforts. They also developed a commercial featuring a gay man coming out to his parents — a first for Italy.
Within a year, Barilla went from the scourge of the LGBTQ community to scoring a top rating on the HRC’s list of employers who are LGBT-friendly, and it has remained at the top of the list ever since. “This all started with a PR problem,” said HRC’s Fidas. “But Barilla has become a stronger company for it.”
Despite the efforts, the anti-LGBTQ comments will never disappear. They still resurface on social media, often without any context as to when they happened or how the company responded, making readers think they just occurred and spurring new demands for boycotts.
“We continue to make an effort to talk about what we’ve done, and to respond to every tweet,” said Luca DiLeo, Barilla’s head of media relations. “But it’s harder to get attention for the good things you’ve done than the bad things.”
One way Barilla keeps its message in the social stratosphere without badgering people with its accomplishments is through its “While the Water Boils” YouTube series, where bestselling author and LGBT activist Hannah Hart interviews inspirational public figures including Bill Nye and Wanda Sykes, about how they feed their passion. “It’s another way for us to move Barilla forward on this journey,” Anderson said.
Barilla is a positive example of how to react to a social media crisis, though companies should proactively talk with leaders and staff about the importance of communicating the company’s values in all conversations about the brand.
“This experience catalyzed us to take action, but we should have done it sooner,” Anderson said. “Everyone benefits when you take the time to understand differing points of view.”
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