Brand activism: better have a solid strategy !

As the recent demise of long time Fox News anchor O’Reilly showed, it’s hard , even for some of the most powerful & established media brands, to withstand the consequences of negative publicity when it starts spreading like a rash: this recent example has shed light on how it can all go down within days despite decades on the top when advertisers decide to take sides and vote with their advertising shoes…But more interestingly, it raises trickier questions as to how far & fast brands/ corporations should , beyond basic P.R. opportunity and messaging, take action by instrumentalizing their advertising dollars: if a brand does it in that given situation or for that celebrity, why should consumers not expect it in every other misalignment between the values/themes carried by programming content in which their ADS are placed and their own brand values or corporate governance of their holding companies ? How soon is the same scrutiny going to be exercised by viewers / customers to other areas of their marketing beyond advertising (i.e. social media, sponsorship, events or political donations etc…) ? How do you guarantee that an activist brand have an overall strategy across all platforms, content and constantly rising “themes du jour “ ?

As more & more is immediately reported & shared across social media & media organization- most often more rumors or catchy headlines than in-depth fact-checking- brands now live in a heighten era of scrutiny & exposure when it comes to their potential association with people/ celebrities, events or causes: some of them have even established clear & strong corporate governance guidelines and make it an important element of their brand image & differentiation.

But in this climate of high buzz volatility where a P.R. nightmare can stem from one single incident ( cf. United Airlines recent fall out from overbooking & handling of a passenger’s removal from a packed airliner) and spread within a few hours, brands need to have a clear strategy & principles when it comes to taking a public stand on sensitive issues of the times…they will then have to walk a fine & consistent line in brand activation if they choose to engage in this marketing avenue of “citizen participation”.

This paper will analyze a few reasons why along with other recent P.R. crisis examples.

But first, a little refresh recap. of the timeline and key facts in regards with the boisterous O’Reilly outing:

After a wake of sexual harassment & settlement reports that led to the outing of ex FOX news CEO Roger Ailes in 2016 (Fox had allegedly paid out $85 million to Ailes, O’Reilly and Gretchen Carlson, the former network anchor who had accused Ailes of harassment) allegations against Bill O’Reilly were bought forward by a April 1st article from the NY Times related to the settlement of five lawsuits against O'Reilly dating back to 2002, immediately followed by a public statement from an ex. FOX guest (Wendy Walsh) renewed scrutiny and calls from various Liberal commentators & media to fire him, based upon these allegations.

Within less than 1 week, the O’Reilly factor lost half of its advertisers and 60 of them or reassigned their investments to other Fox News channels slots, leaving the O’Reilly factor program with a third of its usual advertising inventory. Under the mounting pressure, the owners of News corp., the Murdoch family hired a law firm to conduct an investigation; before the findings were announced, a well-publicized internal debate transpired, leading a week later, to the official announcement of the “killing” the O’Reilly Factor on April 19th 2016.

Now, there has been other recent examples of a rumor shaking / ending a long, established brand, be it a celebrity (Paula Dean 2015) or other media anchors (Dan Rather, Brian Williams), a brand (2011 Samsung 7 phones catching fire, 2016, Wells Fargo fake accounts 2016, 2010 BP Deep Horizon oil spill, the Toyota 2009 acceleration recall or the 2016 Tesla cars battery explosions…) or even a cause ( Planned Parenthood embryos organ business 2015).

In most of these examples, the scandal started from facts & reports that stemmed from multiple sources (exposing direct accounts from customers or insiders) and it was only after a few months of investigation and details of wrong doing that the brand suffered consequences…suspension from the airwaves, fleeing of advertisers, lower consumer trust or loss of Revenue.

However, most of the time, the guilty party would give their own version or that media would report & present various aspects or contradictory responses about the controversy.

In the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophy, B.P.’s reputation took a serious battering. The company was slow to communicate in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and tried to pass the blame on to third parties. Its CEO came across as arrogant and disconnected in broadcast interviews, and BP failed to show real empathy to the accident victims. The impact on business was immediately felt, with BP gas stations in the US witnessing a drop in sales and share prices tumbling 55 percent that year – from $59.48 to $27 per share. The company reported a $5bn loss in 2011, the first time it in the red in nearly 20 years, and by 2015 it had spent $28bn on cleaning up, settling claims and responding. the company took action by firing some management and designed a full corporate campaign spanning several years reaffirming its commitment to the environment with the promise of $ 500 M funding in scientific research…This has been a calculated & steady messaging strategy for the past 10 years and the brand is still reeling from that association in the mind of many consumers.

In regards with the Samsung S7, mere weeks after the release of its flagship Galaxy Note 7 in the Fall of 2016, Samsung began receiving reports of the smartphones catching fire while charging. Initial analysis pointed to overheating batteries, so the South Korean company suggested owners return the phone to where they purchased it for an exchange or refund, extending the crisis to carriers like Verizon and AT&T. Only when reports of fires continued even with the replacement devices, the brand decided to recall all Galaxy Note 7s and to cease production.

Samsung initially treated the crisis with kid gloves when it should’ve been much more direct and transparent. Its initial notification to consumers started as an easy-to-miss tab on its website. Given the severity of the situation (people’s safety at risk), it would’ve been much more appropriate and effective to feature this important news prominently on Samsung’s main homepage, and to send alerts to consumers on all of its social channels–which the company did only days later. Samsung mobile division’s bottom line plummeted a whopping 96%.

The company could’ve minimized this blow by immediately distributing a holding statement to all stakeholders that acknowledged it was aware of the situation, cared for its users’ wellbeing, and was working to quickly to resolve the matter. It should’ve focused instead on getting the facts straight before pushing out erroneous information.

When it comes to another media personality, Paula Dean, who in June 2013 had for more than a decade, shined as one of the biggest stars of the Food Network and earned legions of fans – and some critics – for her brand of hearty Southern cooking , found herself into a " blast from the past" controversy: as she was the target of a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination, it was alleged that Deen made derogatory remarks regarding African Americans: aalthough both sides had eventually agreed to dismiss the lawsuit without any award of costs or fees to any party, Deen had stated in her deposition that she had used the "N-word" at times including once when she recalled telling her husband about an incident "when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head. ... I didn't feel real favorable towards him. Asked if she had used the word since then, she said: "I'm sure I have, but it's been a very long time [...] maybe in repeating something that was said to me ... probably a conversation between blacks. I don't – I don't know. But that's just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the 60's in the south”

Within a week, social media & mainstream media were going awry. When she was to set the record straight and tell her side of the story or apologize, Deen bailed out of an initial interview opportunity on the "Today Show", opting instead to release a series of apology videos on her YouTube channel. Five days later, she sat down with Lauer but that was five days too late..In the time between the filing of the suit and the suit being dismissed, Deen had her cookery programs, publishing deals and endorsement contracts cancelled by more than 10 of her sponsors, including leading Retailors like Wall Mart or J.C. Penney but also from her media partner The Food Network as well as her publisher. Although a few companies then maintained their endorsement deals with Deen and sales of Deen's cookbooks soared, the cooking star was forever thrown into early retirement and had since then never gotten the same exposure & popularity.

All in all, the timeline of most of these examples shows that, unlike the O’Reilly debacle, the accused party was given if only for a few days, the chance of an hearing, or day in court after allegations surfaced.

What’s astonishing in the O’Reilly example is the combination of a relatively low-profile initial response of the accused with an overwhelming convergence of immediate calls for firing without any facts or proof being presented other than a publicized “hear/say” statement from a “victim” journalist Wendy Walsh against the suspicion or wider perception of a sexual harassment culture background at Fox…

What’s even more interesting in this configuration is how fast both major advertisers decided to take action by pulling their Advertising from Mr O’Reilly’s program but also how little initial show of confidence & support the TV host received from his employer News Corp.

These brand activism examples raise a few central questions for marketers , both in terms of guiding principles but also in terms of practical implementation:

1) If a brand is going to assess its advertising placement with the news programming /content side, which criteria are being applied to determine affinity and alignment with its corporate values ?

2) Wouldn’t it be only logical & consistent to do so across the entire spectrum & diversity of ALL platforms/ programs where it appears…? is the media agency tasked to doing that qualitative assessment systematically ? How do you establish how much a domestic violence theme in a daytime drama on TLC is not being “endorsed” by the brand or

3) How do you deal with ONLINE placement where its juxtaposition to editorial/opinion content is more constantly volatile but also more direct, therefore probably making the association potentially more embarrassing…

4) What about Social media ? How much does the sponsorship of a brand is likely to be interpreted in light of news/ comments or opinions from various sides/ consumer profiles: even with a generic disclosure, imagine a McDonalds ad against an editorial study of obesity, an Airline ad near report of a plane crash etc…

5) How soon / based upon which circumstantial & tangible elements should the brand take time to observe trend and consider potential action ?

6) To which level/ measure, should the action be taken ? Full & immediate withdrawal, warning statement related to the assessment of the matter…etc\

In light of these logical steps to consider for an activist brand wanting to take a stand on programming or editorial content matters, it becomes clear that a well thought-after strategy needs to be in place as well as many operational aspects of its implementation and assignment of guidelines & responsibilities across the marketing spectrum.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that many marketing departments or agencies, even among the best equipped, are actually prepared for most of these steps, monitoring & action tools or measures...

That needs to be in place for any activist Brand because , as soon as consumers start raising questions in the public space or social media front, the brand better have solid positions and talking points that will be consistent with the rest of its marketing & communications…or else, beware of a real P.R. backlash and loss of credibility for any future brand marketing initiative !

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