Can brands bounce back from social backlash?
Athabasca University Faculty of Business marketing professors share how brands can navigate and rebound from controversy
In the age of social media, anyone, whether invited to or not, can share their views and experiences about a brand through posts, reviews, and comments. This means that news, both good and bad, can spread faster than ever, all of which makes building and maintaining a loyal following a tricky proposition for brands.
Recent headlines in Canada show what’s at stake for brands when controversy bubbles to the fore. The owners of Valbella Gourmet Foods saw their customer base crumble over transphobic comments made by an owner, followed by shoddy attempts to control the damage. One of Canada’s top sporting bodies, Hockey Canada, has been rocked by repeated sexual assault scandals. And, most recently, Bell Media has been under fire following the dismissal of award-winning CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme after she let her hair go grey.
How brands navigate such disastrous situations not only affects their reputation, but their very survival. Is it possible for brands to emerge from such backlash unscathed, or even stronger? Athabasca University business professors Dr. Lisa Watson and Dr. Terry Beckman help unpack how brands should respond and right the ship.
How has social media raised the stakes and affected public perception of brands?
“Speed and volume. More people are talking. Word of mouth balloons exponentially more than it would have before. Frankly, bad news travels fast. People like bad news stories more than the good. It means you have to be ready to pivot and respond quicker.”– Dr. Lisa Watson
“Everyone that has an experience with a brand can post information about it and that can spread very rapidly. You don’t have to rely on the [traditional] media outlets. ”– Dr. Terry Beckman
How can brands avoid a social media firestorm?
Watson: What a lot of firms do incorrectly is not doing a lot of social listening. Instead, they do a lot of posting. If you’re not really paying attention to what people are saying about you online, and you’re just putting content out there, then you’re in trouble. Because when something goes wrong, you don’t respond quickly.
Beckman: And that really fits well into the notion of brand control. You as a company are only one stakeholder in the brand. When someone takes that brand, twists it, and says, “This is what your brand is about,” then suddenly it changes. So, if you’re not listening carefully and involved and engaged with your brand—in addition to all the other stakeholders—then you could have a problem. If something goes wrong, you can get in trouble fast, and things can spin out of control.
“Listening is not enough. It is how you respond. What do you do to deal with crisis management and public relations? Tell the truth, tell it all, tell it early, and tell it yourself.”– Dr. Lisa Watson
We saw recently with Valbella Gourmet Foods and Bell Media how quickly a brand can become embroiled in controversy on social media. How can brands recover from public backlash?
Watson: Listening is not enough. It is how you respond. What do you do to deal with crisis management and public relations? Tell the truth, tell it all, tell it early, and tell it yourself. The reality is, if you make a mistake, you’re honest about it, and you do everything you can to fix it right away, people will forgive you. When the brands and organizations don’t, or they try to cover it up, or they’re shameless, they run into trouble. People are going to pull your product from the shelf, boycott and do all those things.
But everybody makes mistakes, and we’re willing to forgive people—if they try to right the wrong. And a brand is like a person.
Beckman: Authenticity matters. If you’re trying to recover and are saying things that do not match who you are, then people don’t believe you. They don’t have faith in you.
— Wendy's 🇨🇦 (@WendysCanada) August 25, 2022
Do you think there is a window for recovery? Within 48 hours, Valbella Gourmet Foods posted on Facebook to explain steps that would take to address the situation. Was that enough?
Watson: I am not convinced, because the short-term response was not awesome. It was an owner who made the horrific statements in the email. Well explain to us how you’re going to fire an owner of the company? There wasn’t an immediate statement saying, “We actually entirely disbelieve everything that this person said.” Waiting 48 hours when people are pulling products from their shelf within 15 minutes … the public response was ridiculously fast; their recovery will be trickier.
I think we hold our smaller businesses to a higher account. When we talk about mom-and-pop shops we feel a little bit more connected and expect a little bit more.
Beckman: It’s a tough one. Where they’re located, Canmore, is a very liberal town that is tightly connected. Their customers include the local people. They could have done a better job about it. Which is maybe the message to companies. You need to be prepared for crisis management before it happens. You need to have something ready in your back pocket. And do it fast and effectively.
I don’t know how their recovery will go. I do think they will recover. It certainly won’t be as fast as it could have been if they had a plan first.
Watson: With the number of organizations that have pulled Valhalla Gourmet Foods contracts, I don’t know how they could come back from losing that many big-name customers.
Canmore Pride asked Valbella Gourmet Foods for donations to this year's Pride event, but the response they got was not what they expected. https://t.co/HIkkfrG6D4
— Globalnews.ca (@globalnews) July 27, 2022
“You need to be prepared for crisis management before it happens. ”– Dr. Terry Beckman
What’s another example of a brand that did not do a great job responding to controversy?
Watson: Bell did a very poor job when Lisa Laflamme spoke out about being fired. They seemed to forget that Laflamme was the face of their CTV News brand. She posted one tweet and one video and immediately disappeared. For weeks her singular communication generated huge public outcry, boycotts, even petitions signed by high powered politicians and celebrities. Why? Because Bell wasn’t seen as doing anything to fix the problem.
What was even more interesting to me was how seeing other brands listened and responded to the controversy on social media. Wendy’s giving their logo grey hair, I thought, was a clever show of support. They are very interactive with other brands and political issues on Twitter, so I thought it fit. Many disagreed and thought it was an attention grab that didn’t fit the brand’s personality.
Beckman: While Wendy’s support for LaFlamme was interesting, they have never been a part of any anti-ageism work or campaigns and thus it seems likely rather a short-lived contribution. However, Dove also joined the fray on Twitter with #Keepthegrey and a $100,000 donation to a company that supports inclusive workplaces. Dove’s reputation for work in anti-ageism and anti-sexism gives them credibility in providing commentary on the situation and puts Bell Media even more on the defensive.
What are some brands that did manage to rebound from controversy, and what did they do right?
Watson: Fisher Price got in trouble because they were producing toys in China, and a whole bunch of them got shipped for random testing in the U.S. and they had lead paint on them. This came to light overnight. By 8 a.m. the next morning, the CEO of Mattel was on every national and international news station talking about the recall and how the toys hadn’t actually hit stores yet. But if customers wanted to return any of the products, they would take them, no questions asked. So, this is an example of, “This is what we found, this is how we’re making it right, and this is how we’re making sure it never happens again.” By 3 p.m. it was no longer news.
A big brand that is not going to suffer is Hockey Canada. They will go through one sport to another sport and continue to find all these issues of sexual harassment and assault. They already see it in the NFL. That is nothing. They’re power houses. People are rank ordering their value system and sports beats assault.
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