Social media drives narratives. That cannot be said enough. Social media can also create a crisis where none existed. Many brands are finding this out firsthand in the current politically charged and polarized environment.
Today’s consumers expect brands to tell a story and share their values including their political values. Many brands have for years avoided taking stands on political issues and politicians as they knew such a stand would antagonize some consumers and cost them sales. Yet more and more brands are finding that they can’t sidestep political issues. Consumers are taking to social media demanding to know where a brand stands on an issue or political personality. We have seen this just recently with consumers taking to social media to demand of brands where do they stand on FOX News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly and stories of sexual harassment. This social media outrage has led numerous advertisers to pull their advertising from his show.
Very often brands are caught unprepared for the social media outrage that creates a crisis for them. They need to be proactive, especially in this socially media driven world where a tweet on Twitter can be more powerful than the best devised public relations campaign and lead to numerous negative media stories.
What should companies do?
- Identify potential issues that consumers care about and might demand to know where the brand stands on the issue.
- Identify potential activists, antagonists, supporters, and media that would be involved in such a media crisis.
- Practice stimulations of a potential social media crisis driven by the brand’s stand on a particular issue.
- Respond at once when the crisis erupts.
- Engage on social media. Remember brands are all about engaging consumers on social media about various positive news items. But too often, they fail to do that when a crisis hits. That is a mistake.
A crisis can happen at any time. In today’s polarized world social media often both creates and defines a crisis. To survive such a crisis, a brand must be ready.
Social media creates news – both positive and negative. Businesses of all sizes are finding out that social media posts can create a crisis where one did not exist. How a business responds to such a post can determine if it becomes a crisis or not. The saga of Cracker Barrel and Brad’s wife is a vivid example of what not to do when a social media crisis erupts.
A Milltown, Indiana man named Bradley Byrd claimed his wife, Nanette, was fired from the Cracker Barrel in Corydon, Indiana on his birthday after 11 years of service. Byrd posted a question on Cracker Barrel’s Facebook page asking, “Why did you fire my wife?”
From there, the internet took over. Visitors to the Cracker Barrel Facebook page are unable to post on the wall, so they’ve turned to the company’s posts to find out what happened and to show their support for Brad’s wife. Some of the comments are quite funny. #JusticeForBradsWife and #BradsWife are trending. The media is reporting on the social media outrage. Yet Cracker Barrel is remaining mum to the growing story both with the traditional media and on social media. While companies will not state why an employee was terminated, Cracker Barrel is not even acknowledging the comments and is acting as if nothing is happening as it continues to post advertisements on social media. That hasn’t stopped the social media outrage or other businesses from jumping in and making use of the tagline Brad’s wife.
Cracker Barrel is coming across as uncaring, unresponsive, and ridiculous all at the same time. Consumers are angry at a lack of any response or acknowledgement from the company which results in even more outraged posts. That is a place where no business wants to be.
So what should Cracker Barrel do?
- Acknowledge the posts on its Facebook page. A simple statement saying thank you for your post. We appreciate hearing from you and while we value your opinion, employee records are confidential and something we cannot comment on. Such a statement would at least demonstrate that Cracker Barrel is paying attention to what people (many of them customers) are posting. By ignoring them, the company is basically sending the message that it doesn’t care what people (customers) think.
- Post testimonials online from employees on what a great place Cracker Barrel is to work for and how the company cares about its employees.
- Post online how much the company values its customers and their opinions.
- Depending on the reason for the termination, Cracker Barrel should rehire Brad’s wife and even use her in advertising.
What Cracker Barrel is doing is what no company should do when facing a social firestorm – nothing. This allowed the story to go from social media to traditional media, making Cracker Barrel a butt of late night jokes and the object of consumer anger. As a result of not having a crisis management plan in place for a social media crisis, Cracker Barrel has allowed Brad’s wife to get the last laugh and serve as a warning to businesses on what not to do during a crisis.
The other day, I wrote a crisis communications strategy for the Trump White House. It was the conventional crisis communications strategy that would normally apply for any Administration facing the issues that President Trump confronts. Yet in another sense, he doesn’t need a conventional crisis communications strategy and if he followed one it would actually do more harm than good.
What you say? Look at all the negative media coverage the Trump Administration is earning. It moves from one crisis to another (his press conference attacking the media was just the latest example). That is true in the conventional sense. Yet what we are forgetting is that Donald Trump’s presidency, just as his campaign is anything but conventional.
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump was discounted. His attack against John McCain inferring that McCain was not a hero was supposed to doom his campaign yet his poll numbers increased. Trump’s running feud with Megyn Kelly was going to be the end of the campaign, yet it reverberated in Trump’s favor. There was no way he could win the Republican nomination with all of his verbal stumbles yet he emerged as the Republican nominee. Hillary Clinton was a sure winner against Trump, conventional wisdom held. The debates were viewed as a disaster and of course there was the infamous Access Hollywood tape. Yet rather than bow to traditional crisis management, Trump doubled down attacking his enemies and never backing down. On Election Night, he scored the greatest political upset since Harry Truman in 1948.
Trump’s success can be attributed to one thing more than anything else – his brand. The public has known the Trump brand for decades. It is flamboyant, never backs down and bucks conventional wisdom. This is what voters bought into during the 2016 election – the Trump brand. Voters believed in the brand and that Trump was not a regular politician.
For Trump now to follow a traditional crisis management response would go against that brand story that his voters bought into. Based upon polls, Trump’s base is staying with him. In many ways, Trump is like Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty who apologized if his remarks offended anyone but never backed away from his remarks and the public rallied around him because it was consistent with his brand story. For Trump to change is strategy and eschew to traditional crisis management steps would be to go against his brand story.
Brands watching Trump should realize that consumers buy into a brand’s identity during both good and bad times. During a crisis, if a brand approaches a response not consistent with its identity it runs the risk of alienating its consumers and losing its unique identity. Donald Trump understands that lesson and that is why we cannot expect to see traditional crisis management from him.
Every presidential administration just like every business needs crisis communications at some point. For the Trump Administration, the need is coming earlier than most (not even a month into the Administration). The Administration has been beset by numerous mistakes (Michael Flynn, alternative facts, the CIA visit, the Australia phone call) that have overshadowed its successes. So what should the Administration do in terms of crisis communications?
- Limit President Trump’s media exposure. One of the great powers of the presidency is the President himself. But he has been everywhere all at once. The Administration needs to limit his media exposure to one major event a day that coincides with the message of the day.
- Replace Sean Spicer as White House Press Secretary. Spicer is serving as both White House Communications Director and Press Secretary. He has become a parody in his role as White House Press Secretary through the Saturday Night Live Melissa McCarthy portrayals and has lost some credibility with the media that he works with on a daily basis. Retain him as White House Communications Director but bring in a respected person as Press Secretary to give the White House a fresh approach in its press dealings.
- Now that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has resigned, the Administration needs to replace him quickly with a well-respected individual that will command respect in the media, with the public, and policy makers.
- Stay on message. Too often the Administration has fallen off of its message and got caught in needless distractions. It needs to avoids this.
- Refocus on its campaign pledge of tax reform, infrastructure and creating jobs.
- Limit the President’s Twitter use (perhaps impossible). While reaching voters it creates needless news stories for the Administration.
- Carefully vet all facts released. Mistaken facts or alleged false facts (Bowling Green Massacre) are doing untold damage to the Administration’s credibility. The media is giving everything greater scrutiny so this means the Administration cannot make mistakes with facts.
- Have Mike Pence, Reince Preibus, and Cabinet members be the main talk show spokespersons.
- Avoid lashing out at critics be it judges or Saturday Night Live as that creates an unnecessary news story that the media latches on to with a fervor.
- Have the message of the day come through one central source, preferably the chief of staff’s office as was done in previous Administrations.
Righting course after a few difficult weeks won’t be hard for the Trump Administration. But to do so means employing a strategic crisis communications plan.
This Is Us, the drama/comedy on NBC is the breakout hit of this television season. The show centers on the fictional Pearson story and jumps back and forth from the time that Jack and Rebecca Pearson were raising three children in the late 1970s to present day following the three now grown up children. NBC has such faith in the show that it renewed the show for not one but, two more seasons. Brands when developing their brand story can learn from This Is Us on how to develop a strong and compelling brand story that resonates with consumers.
- Stand out from the competition. The whole concept of This Is Us is unlike anything else on television. The concept of jumping back and forth in time with the same family was an unique concept that viewers found compelling and original. In a television landscape that is filled with procedural dramas, sitcoms, and cop shows, This Is Us stands apart. The show is not dark and sinister nor does it tap into any of the polarization and politics that fills the news. It is a feel-good show even if it does cover some of life’s tougher moments. Brands when developing their story need to follow this concept and let their story be unique and compelling that will appeal to their target audience.
- Have compelling spokespersons. Part of the popularity of the show is the appeal of two characters who are spokespersons for the theme of the show. One is the Pearson patriarch, Jack. He is the father that everyone wishes they had and communicates in a simple, effective, yet fun manner. The other is the recurring character of Dr. Nathan Katowsky, popularly known in the show as Dr. K, the replacement doctor who delivers the Pearsons’ children. In every appearance the character gives a quote that resonates with viewers and is tweeted and retweeted over and over again. Like Jack, Dr. K is seen as original and compelling. Brands need to make sure that the person they have telling their story is compelling and one that audiences will relate to when hearing the person speak.
- Keep it simple. This Is Us tackles birth, marriage, child raising, death, illness, family conflict, and much more but it does so in a simple and easy to understand way that the message and enjoyment are not lost. Brands need to remember this when crafting their story message.
- This Is Us creates an emotional connection and reaction from its viewing audience. People report coming to tears when they learned that Jack Pearson, the father, is dead in present day. Others swoon with the romance of the Toby character courting grown up, Kate Pearson. Brands need an emotional connection with their audiences as well. Consumers are not just buying the brand but the brand story and that is why the emotional connection and shared values must be present in the story.
Brands in developing their brand story and communicating with consumers should study This Is Us as it teaches news lessons weekly in communications strategies. And if your current story or strategy isn’t working, it can offer a lesson on how to correct it, for as Dr. K says, “There’s no lemon so sour that you can’t make something resembling lemonade.”
One of the things many people ask about public relations is what is the difference between public relations and advertising. It is a common question that is asked time and time again. Yet the two should not be confused. Here are the differences between advertising and public relations:
- Advertising is paid placement. The company pays for the advertisement that is seen in the print publication, heard on the radio, or appears on television. The public knows that the advertisement is paid for by the company. Public relations on the other hand is free and is earned by being included in a story or interview. It provides an implied third party endorsement of a company’s product or service by the media.
- Message control. With advertising, the company pays for the message, controls what, where and when it will appear. In public relations, there is not the control over the message. The reporter determines what if anything they will report on. If a company knows how to make its message timely and compelling, the chances are that the reporter will cover it.
- Consumer Perception. With paid advertising, the customer knows that the provided the message with the intention of trying to sell them something—be it a service or a product. When someone reads a third-party article written about a company’s service or product (or sees/hears coverage on television or radio), the message is perceived as non-biased and an endorsement by the media.
- An advertisement lasts as long as the company pays for it to run. After that the advertisement disappears. With public relations, the story lasts forever thanks to the internet leaving a viral footprint that is discovered time and again. One client appeared in a newspaper article in 2006 discussing online shopping and that article still appears as a top search engine item for the client. A television appearance can last forever thanks to YouTube, the television outlet’s archives, and also the transcript of the show.
- Point of contact. With advertising a sales representative is the main point contact when fulfilling an advertising campaign. With public relations, the point of contact are reporters, editors, and producers.
- An advertisement will never appear on the front page of a newspaper or be the lead on the nightly news. In public relations, a news story can be on the front page and be the lead story on the nightly news giving a company extra weight in the court of public perception.
Can the difference between advertising and public relations be confusing? Yes. But the key to remember is that both are essential for a successful marketing program.
In a matter of weeks, toy makers will descend upon New York City to unveil the hottest and latest toys at Toy Fair. Toy Fair is the premier event for the toy industry. Think of the Oscars, Grammys, Emmys combined with Fashion Week, and that is Toy Fair. For many start-ups and even existing toy companies, Toy Fair is a make or break event. Be discovered by the media at the trade show and the sky is the limit. Be ignored and it is hard to recoup.
Why is this? Toy Fair is an opportunity for journalists to notice trends and get a sense of what is changing and new in the toy industry. That allows reporters to form toy trend stories throughout the year and develop the ideas for television segments and print articles. This is a way to get a toy in front of consumers and for many start-ups, a way to get the notice of investors (Shark Tank producers attend the show along with many financial analysts).
So how should you stand out to earn the coveted media attention?
Know what the media will be looking for and target your presentation for the specific media that you need to target. What is the media looking for at Toy Fair?
- Toys that are cool (I know everyone thinks their toy is cool). Reporters are looking for good visual toys that will appeal to people instantly. They are looking for groundbreaking toys. They also want toys that are easy to demonstrate on camera and can be explained easily. Have a good, appealing, and strong elevator pitch between 30 seconds to a minute prepared. Don’t overwhelm with technical details.
- Reporters like toys that are tied are tied into hot topics and trends.
- Tech toys.
- Entertainment tie-ins.
- Lifestyle themes.
- Social consciousness.
- Compelling business start-up stories (This really appeals to the financial press, analysts, and of course Shark Tank producers).
- Toys that are connected to a particular regional market.
- Toys that have a strong human interest appeal.
So knowing what the media is looking for, how do you attract them?
- Develop key talking points so you are prepared when the media stops by. Among these talking points should be:
- Who you are.
- What your company and toy does.
- Why your toy stand out.
- Important selling features.
- Getting the media to your booth:
- Have the booth look professional.
- Make sure that you have contacted the media who will be attending Toy Fair and invite them to your booth.
- Host a special event at the booth just for journalists such a pre-show breakfast or lunch.
- Have snacks available for reporters.
Toy Fair happens once a year but the impact of the show for a toy company can be felt throughout the year. That is why for anyone exhibiting at Toy Fair, media coverage is not essential but a must in order to be successful.