Preparing for a Spike in Social Media Activity When Brands Decide to Take a Stand

Opinion: Being on the perceived ‘wrong side’ of the debate could cause an immediate crisis

Taking a stand on a controversial issue could prompt a response like this one SIphotography/iStock

Remember the days when social media was all sunshine and rainbows? I certainly do. At least, that’s what it felt like. Social media today is a far cry from what it was in its nascence. It has evolved in ways that many of us couldn’t have even imagined or predicted.

Until now, the rules that applied to the dinner table since the beginning of time have applied to brands on social media: Don’t talk about politics or religion. Both subjects are sensitive, polarizing and even taboo. Whatever stance you take, you’ll likely rub someone the wrong way and, perhaps unintentionally, burn a few bridges.

Social media has evolved into the proverbial dinner table today: a democratized, interconnected web of platforms that keeps conversations flowing or, at times, spiraling out of control.

In the beginning, a number of brands started pushing the boundaries of dinner table conversations by taking a stance on issues like sustainability and environmental impact. The “right and wrong” of doing good here was clear, and data showed that a growing customer base of millennials was ready to pay for it. Social media was an obvious choice for drawing attention to these initiatives.

However, many brands today have pushed the envelope even further, now inspired to create more provocative conversations on social—whether encouraged by their customers, by virtue of their mission statements or via the interests of their respective leaders. The outcomes (or even the fallout) from such activities have ranged from a cordial blip to losing customers or even a significant drop in stocks.

As consumers have become more accustomed to brands taking a stance on political-adjacent issues, it was only a matter of time until they started enlisting brands to join conversations that wouldn’t always have a clear “right or wrong” skew. After all, it’s been found that 90 percent of Americans would be more likely to buy a product or service because the company advocated for an issue they cared about—of course, in the way they actually care about it.

The downside here is that advocacy by brands can sometimes feel like walking a tightrope. Taking a stand on the perceived “wrong side” of the debate—the side that the majority of your customers do not support—could cause an immediate crisis.

Let’s take Papa John’s, for example. Then-CEO John Schnatter, who helped ink a deal between Papa John’s and the National Football League, openly blamed national anthem protests for a slump in sales, which led him to criticize the NFL for “poor leadership” in managing the situation. Unfortunately, his views weren’t part of the majority—so far off, in fact, that he stepped down amid the outrage and, within hours of ending Papa John’s multiyear sponsorship deal, Pizza Hut swooped in to fill that gap.

Even more recently, in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., an incident bringing new fervor to the gun-control debate, both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines quickly and publicly severed ties with the National Rifle Association—a clear response to the backlash they had received across social media for their affiliations with the group. This ultimately created a domino effect among other brands. While not necessarily a stance that supporters of the NRA were happy about, these brands chose to stand on the side of gun-violence victims.

The truth is, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to how brands can and should deal with getting involved in sensitive political discussions, especially knowing that more consumers now want the brands they love, including the leaders of those brands, to be a part of the debate.

So, how can brands be ready for a potential spike in social media activity while never taking an eye off of day-to-day social customer-care efforts? Try this, for starters:

  • Social listening that captures both signals and noise: It’s important that your customer-support team has the right resources and tools in place—at all times—to ensure that “real customer-service issues” never get buried among queries related to people simply chiming in on the debate you’ve started (whether in support or against your viewpoint). No stone can be left unturned. You’ve got to have a plan in place to manage all queries that come your way, always ensuring that your customers never feel forgotten.
  • Secure message handoff: Depending on the sensitivities around the stance you’ve taken, some customer queries can be handled easily through traditional social customer-care tactics, like direct messages, while others are best transferred to more secure channels where one-on-one attention can be assured. This is especially important for brands in highly regulated industries where certain pieces of information should not be shared in the public domain. As a service organization, your primary objective is to make your customers’ lives easier, not add to their frustration. Make sure you have the right tools in place to effectively triage your customer-care efforts.
  • Responsiveness from the C-suite: Today, news travels fast—and at an exponentially quicker rate with each passing minute. Brands don’t always have the luxury to “wait and see.” When there’s a clear and present controversy on your hands, brands must be ready to respond, instantly. You don’t have hours or days to come up with a plan. Sometimes you’ve only got a matter of minutes. That’s why it’s so important for social customer-care teams to not only pay attention to what’s brewing, but also elevate those issues to the C-suite well before a full-blown crisis takes hold. Crises on social media can happen immediately. How brands respond to them needs to be just as quick.

So, there you have it. For all of the amazing doors that social media has opened for brands, it’s also created a Pandora’s box around all things political. Brands can no longer sit on the sidelines. Consumers expect them to be a part of the conversations surrounding even the most sensitive or polarizing social issues. Although doing so can sometimes add fuel to the fire, it can also serve brands well in the long run.

Either way, when brands decide to take a stand on political issues, they must have a plan to manage that decision, effectively. Anything short of preparedness is just begging for disaster.

Pete Hess is CEO of social media management platform Lithium Technologies.