When is It Okay To Get Political In Brand PR?

It’s (finally) Inauguration Week. With a new government starting, it’s a good time to look back at how brands communicated during the turmoil of the Trump administration, and how it informs new norms. 

Many of us were raised with the idea that it’s bad form to speak about religion or politics. Brands historically have followed suit, yet things have changed over the last several years. 

Was Trump’s presidency a turning point?

Just last year, hundreds of businesses released strongly worded messaging in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently corporate leaders spoke out against the unprecedented unrest at the U.S. Capitol and pointed the finger directly at President Trump. 

Not every moment will be as clear or as big as watching an insurrection on television, so the question arises: when is it appropriate for a brand’s external messaging to verge into politics or politically charged issues? The answer: it’s complicated. 

Brand values start with the customer

It all starts with understanding your brand. That includes its values and those of its audience. This also means messaging that is seen as authentic and not merely to seem “woke” or drive profit. Taking a political stance that’s not really informed by brand values won’t work; customers are good at spotting who is pivoting to benefit from the political environment.

For instance, if spice company Penseys or ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s make a political statement, it’s not unexpected or inauthentic because we know the history of these brands. They’ve been speaking out about social and political issues for a long time. Senior management actually believe what they’re saying, and they know their audience agrees. 

However, in the Trump era, more brands are trying to dip into political messaging, and sometimes it doesn’t ring true. Remember the fallout from the Pepsi commercial where Kendall Jenner handed a police officer a Pepsi, and it magically solved an unnamed issue? Pepsi took a lot of heat for that commercial and it wasn’t because the brand got political. The problem was that the message was so inauthentic. It also trivialized true protest action. (Did they really think a can of Pepsi would solve a systemic problem? We didn’t, either.) The ad was so tone-deaf that the public saw it for what it was. It wasn’t because Pepsi decided to take a stand against police violence, but instead was a clear sales play. 

The winners will always take some heat

Pepsi failed by addressing activism in a shallow and inauthentic way. That’s not to say that a calculated risk can’t be worth it though. Another company tackled the racial inequality issue head-on and reaped the benefits for its brand. When it signed a deal with Colin Kaepernick in 2018, Nike knew that its audience supported the social justice issues Kaepernick kneeled for. Of course its stand was met with some backlash, but Nike product sales jumped in the following months. Why? It wasn’t because Nike went into politics, but rather because the message was true to the brand and its history. Nike’s branding has always conveyed passion, drive, and pushing yourself to do better, the very values that Kaepernick embodies as well. 

Now that we’ve made it through four years of the Trump administration, we’ve moved past brands staying away from politics for fear of alienating consumers. On the contrary, many of today’s customers are looking for brands that share their values and actively communicate it. So, it’s up to marketers to identify areas of alignment and to convey their positions in a way that feels true. 

Should Brands Take A Stand?

The common public relations wisdom about brands and politics is that they don’t mix. When an issue fuels consumer anger or public debate, it should be avoided at all costs. The bigger the brand, the more risk-averse the marketing team tends to be, with good reason.

But nowadays there’s pressure for brands to take a stand. The election of Donald Trump didn’t cause the culture wars, but it has hardened the polarized positions that already existed. There’s new energy on the left, resulting in a backlash among Trump supporters, which triggers more division, and so on. Like-minded people live in tribes, separated by geography, social media circles, and traditional media consumption. Some want to know that the brands they support share their views, and even their activism.

Just last month there was a storm of outrage over Megyn Kelly’s interview with conspiracy nut Alex Jones.  JP Morgan Chase pulled its advertising from NBC’s new show in advance to register its disapproval. The move echoed the ad boycott of Breitbart News last year as major brands left the site in droves over its “alt-right” content.

Even Shakespeare had his time in the barrel recently. New York’s Shakespeare in the Park is a longstanding cultural happening here, but this season the protagonist of its production of Julius Caesar looked very much like President Trump, and (spoiler alert!), because he’s assassinated by political rivals, critics saw a possible incitement to violence. Some advertisers lent their ears to the complaints as well. Bank of America pulled its sponsorship of The Public Theater after 11 years.  Following suit was Delta, which tweeted that the production “crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”

Whether you agree or not, the above decisions were at the low end of the risk scale. Wading into a third-rail issue like immigration, abortion, or even climate change, can be far more perilous to a brand reputation. The research isn’t definitive, but most studies show that taking a stand amidst controversy does come with risk. A study by SSRS in collaboration with the 4A’s found that 58 percent of consumers dislike when brands get political. And that dislike may be more than just temporary. A YouGov survey suggests that that when consumers drop a brand due to bad PR, as many as two-thirds never return to it.

Yet there are major exceptions to the common wisdom that make a brand’s PR direction more challenging. Research also shows that younger people – Millennials and especially post-Millennial consumers – are far more likely to say that brands should take a political stand than, say, Baby Boomers. Since these younger segments are beloved by advertisers and are the future of so many brands, PRs and marketers are taking note.

So, when should a brand take a stand?

The answer depends on the brand. For those with a strong activist identity, the path is easier.  Take Patagonia, for example. For its brand, this “new normal” of weekend activism is probably a marketing opportunity. The company’s advocacy on environmental issues is a core value. Even for a less well-identified brand, a strong stand on a social or political matter could drive relevance by differentiating it. But for most mainstream products and companies, the decision to embrace politics – or a politicized issue – is fraught.
How should PRs navigate the new environment? Here are some guidelines to navigating the brand reputation waters when it comes to controversial positions.

Know your audience

When Trump signed the executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Airbnb jumped to oppose it. Not only did CEO Brian Chesky speak out against the order, but Airbnb went further by offering housing to stranded refugees. The position was fully consistent with the brand’s values and that of its customer base of sophisticated international travelers. Patagonia founder Yves Chouinard has slammed Trump over his decision to leave the Paris Accord, but given his history, brand-watchers would probably be more surprised if he were silent. No position or campaign will please everyone, but a brand should know if a position will run counter to the values of its “base.”

Explain the move honestly

One of the early victims of the polarization around Trump was the venerable L.L. Bean brand. After Trump tweeted thanks for the support of Linda Bean, granddaughter of the company’s founder, it set off a move to boycott Bean products. The company wisely kept a low-ish media profile but outlined its response to the protest in a statement posted on Facebook. It explained its company values (“inspiring people to live life outdoors”), summarized its community and philanthropic commitments, including environmental stewardship and education, and respectfully asked for critics to view Linda Bean as a single shareholder rather than a symbol of the brand. It largely worked to defuse the anger, because the connection was relatively tenuous, and because Bean articulated its non-position thoughtfully and well.

Consider internal audiences

JP Morgan Chase’s move to cancel ads supporting the Alex Jones interview was probably consistent with its overall corporate and customer values. CMO Kristin Lemkau tweeted, “As an advertiser, I’m repulsed that @megynkelly would give a second of airtime to someone who says Sandy Hook and Aurora are hoaxes. Why?” Yet it may have been even more important internally. The decision strikes me as a decision made with the corporation’s 25,000 employees in mind. Maybe no one chose to move their business to Chase as a result of the stand, but it was probably a popular decision inside the company and a wise move by Lemkau.

Be consistent

When the heat is on, it may be tempting to retreat from an unpopular position, but a flip-flop can worsen the situation by angering a whole new tribe of consumers. It’s far better to weather the storm. NBC compounded its problems when it tried to stake out a middle ground by editing the Alex Jones interview to make it more harsh. That did nothing to defuse criticism from sponsors and viewers, and it angered Jones, who then released a full-length version of the interview online, preempting NBC’s own airing. By contrast, look at Nordstrom. As the #GrabYourWallet movement to drop Trump-branded fashion products gained steam, it was included in the boycott. After it began to (quietly) phase out the Ivanka Trump fashion line, it faced a backlash, culminating in a nasty tweet by the president himself. But it wisely stayed the course, releasing a diplomatically worded statement and hunkering down until the controversy waned.

Plan for a reaction

Every action spurs a reaction. A smart communicator will explain the decision to stakeholders and advocates, furnish talking points where appropriate, and work to control the message by staffing up on the customer response and social side of the business. The imperative here is that any and all consumer comments – pro and con – are heard and responded to with professionalism.
And if you think we’ve never been in more polarizing times, take heart. Dive into Ron Chernow’s Hamilton for a refresher on the incendiary political rhetoric of America’s early days (not to mention the duels!) And note that long before the current culture wars and Trump’s election, brands waded into controversy based on principle, not just PR. In 1992, for example, Levi’s stopped donating to the Boy Scouts of America over its refusal to accept gay members, sparking product boycotts. Right before Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, IBM was the first major corporation to extend health benefits to same-sex domestic partners in 1996. We may see marriage equality and gay rights as a “safe” issue today, but things were different 25 years ago. These and other brand positions taken against the grain are outlined in Eight Times Brands Got Political, an inspiring reminder that a principled stand is not only possible, but it can be good PR, too – over the long run.

Personal Opinion And The Slippery Slope

I received an email this morning from a casual business contact that got me thinking about a lesson I learned many moons ago from a very senior public relations agency professional. It has stuck with me through the years.

The business contact’s email commented on a recent political development and how tremendous it is for democracy and the future of the country. Keep in mind, this is not a longtime, personal friend with whom I’ve ever seriously discussed politics or social perspectives.

He obviously assumed I shared his opinion–to me a dangerous thing to do in a business context.

Whether I do agree with him or not is immaterial. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion. But that brings me to the point my long-ago mentor made about business and engaging clients or prospects in out-of-the-office personal dialogue or chit-chat. “Don’t ever get into politics or religion,” he warned. “Ask about business, family, sports, entertainment, music, travel, the weather–whatever–just don’t get into subjects that can lead to argument, controversy or friction.”

Know what? It’s a cliche, but from my perspective, he was right. When you start getting into the slippery slope of personal conviction and opinion, you have NO idea of where the other person stands . . . you have no idea what his or her reaction might be. It’s one thing in a social setting to engage the client or prospect in non-controversial topical issues of the day. It’s quite another to get into areas which are much more personal–subjects linked to deep-rooted individual morals or beliefs.

Has the email I received this morning affected my opinion of this business contact?

Yes, it has. No, not because of his opinion–as noted at the outset, that didn’t really matter to me–but rather because of his judgment in sending me the email in the first place.

You’re entitled to your opinion; it’s what makes democracy great. Just, as it pertains to business, keep away from the proverbial “Slippery Slope.”

PR Lessons From The 2012 Campaign

Since the primaries began, I’ve been thinking about the PR strategies we’ve witnessed so far during this election season. On the surface, campaign PR doesn’t offer many similarities to corporate and brand communications. After all, it tends to be more localized, more combative, and, recently, shockingly negative. Yet, campaign 2012, as well as the ones that preceded it, holds learnings for PR pros.

Narrative trumps policy. Many believe Barack Obama was able to win in 2008 because his narrative of hope and change was more compelling than John McCain’s warnings about a dangerous world and the need for experience at the helm. An inspiring story is worth a thousand policy statements. For my money, Herman Cain was the master of narrative (while he lasted), with Rick Santorum trying hard to weave a strong story of his own. Marketing and corporate PR professionals are increasingly harnessing the power of storytelling for our clients. Whether a product, corporation, entertainer, or service, we need to take our audience on a “hero’s journey” through challenges and changes to arrive at a new destination.

Speed counts. No one’s more conscious of this than a political operative. With pundits parsing every word and opposition specialists ready to pounce, a rapid response machine is a critical survival skill. We’ve seen how a small slip, poor turn of phrase, or slow reaction can lose the news cycle for days. (See: Mitt Romney, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”) Brand PR pros can learn from the typical “war room” setup pioneered by James Carville. When hit with the unexpected, respond early and respond often.

Mobilize allies and advocates. Using friends and third-party allies to evangelize is a classic PR strategy, but campaign pros probably do it better than anyone. The late Michael Deaver set the bar when he created a “message of the day” strategy for the Reagan White House, which literally had every level of representatives saying the same thing. Message consistency is more important than ever in today’s fragmented media environment. Here, Romney holds the advantage, as local governors and representatives have increasingly fallen in line for the candidate.

Keep it simple. Have we forgotten “It’s the economy, stupid?” Or Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax proposal? The reality is often complicated, but no one wants to hear it. We see this often in technology PR, where engineers and product specialists can get caught up in the back-end explanation of product superiority. Don’t try to explain the technology, detail the solutions, or list all the features. Just tell me why it’s awesome.

Authenticity counts. Politics is about real people, and no amount of packaging, prettifying, or spin can hide the individual’s true essence. Romney runs into trouble when he tries to act like a regular guy, because he’s simply not. That’s why his best moment may have been the Florida debate, where, helped by a new coach, he forcefully defended his wealth and success. The best positioning nearly always builds on what’s real.

For PR pros, the best is yet to be. The final match-up is bound to offer more communications lessons for all of us.