Rethinking the Framework of Brand Response to Tragedies

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Why the first step for brands to go beyond social media lip-service is building the right internal and external team

By Jason Mitchell, CEO, Movement Strategy

Social media’s enormous impact can’t be overstated, especially for brands that face more pressure to not just sell a product, but an idea, emotion or lifestyle. After all, when someone puts on an article of clothing, uses an app or service, or steps into a certain car, they are expressing themselves – saying that a product represents who they are. Because of that, people want to align themselves with brands that share their values and will stand up for what they believe is right. And while some brands have historically used their platforms to embrace certain causes without social media, social media has made participation in things like “#BlackoutTuesday” more central to what it means to be a modern brand.

As a social media agency, we know from experience that the risk in taking a stand is huge. Brands that stay on the sidelines and remain quiet about social injustice, tragedies or other causes are also sending a message that they don’t care, don’t want to choose a side or are scared to engage. Meanwhile, the media is also filled with examples of brands intending to show support on social media with disastrous results. This uncertainty has led brands to try to mitigate risk by ruthlessly workshopping social media messaging in ways that are overly PR’d, watered-down and inauthentic. Essentially, even when a brand’s intentions are good, the process behind social media messaging leads to a bad result.

This has to change, but to fix it means focusing on the people behind the scenes of how companies respond in difficult times – restructuring those teams and how they craft messaging that goes beyond the black square.

Anatomy of a Bad Brand Response

From an insider’s view, when a bad brand response happens, it’s almost always a structural failure – a corporate communications team working hand-in-hand with an odd mix of senior level executives quickly trying to put out a statement. They treat it similar to other scenarios where they feel that they urgently need to communicate something at the C-Suite level – asking a series of basic questions to help create the messaging like “What do we think?”, “What are our values?”, “How is our team being impacted?” and “What do our customers/clients think?” The exact statement and phrasing of a message then gets passed down to social media managers to post it, even as they’ve had no hand in composing it. Worse yet, when a post goes wrong, these social managers are often the ones responsible for wading through the vitriol in a comment section. As you can imagine, this doesn’t help support the cause, can be incredibly emotionally taxing on the team who is doing the work, and is generally unsuccessful for the brand overall.

But the thing to keep in mind is that, for most brands, this isn’t a cynical exercise. The people involved are genuinely invested and care about using their brand platforms in the right way. But, because of a breakdown in process, individuals who are not involved day-to-day with either the social media community or activism are the ones crafting the posts in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or other event. So, addressing this issue means coming up with a new framework – one that allows everyone to feel invested and offers broader insight and perspective.

A New Way

In the simplest terms, the people who are most familiar with what the company is actually doing as it pertains to the issue should be the ones in charge of crafting a statement. They know what they are talking about, they know their audience and they won’t allow a post to become sanded down into something that feels corporate and fake. But more specifically, those statements should flow via a “Director of Activism” who answers to the CEO and takes input from those close to the social community internally as well as an outside team of multiple NGOs and activists. This creates a new organizational chart that is inclusive and brings voices and perspectives forward where they would previously be ignored, co-opted or stolen from without credit. In practice, it might look something like this: 

movement strategy brand response flow chart

The outside team is particularly important because it allows a brand to get a wide variety of perspectives that help stakeholders understand an issue on multiple levels, not just from the perspective of a single group of people. If a brand’s leadership can philosophically embrace the idea that while they are not the teacher, they’d like to be the classroom, they can quickly identify and reach out to include those who would be good teachers in their subject areas. This could mean taking general cues from brands that are doing a great job supporting causes on social (like Ben & Jerry’s), engaging people who are leaders in the activism space on social, working with people studying an issue from an academic perspective or others.  We’ve actually seen the benefits of this new structure first hand, using a similar process to source insights on how to help brands support social justice movements in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The ability to ask them questions was invaluable in rethinking the value that brands can bring to these crucial moments.

Of course, there is no true one-size-fits-all solution for such a complicated challenge. There is no such thing as a perfect response and brands should always weigh their involvement according to their unique needs. But when a brand does decide to engage, having the right internal and external team is essential to figuring out what a brand’s values are, what causes are important to them, and how they speak about those causes when the time comes. With the right team, it’s just a matter of trusting that team to make the right call – helping a brand respond in ways that are authentic and intentional.

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