Is anyone not politically polarizing these days? The Oscars are upon us and, if you listen closely, you can hear advertisers that have cast their lot with celebrity frontmen/women collectively wringing their hands in anticipation.
Why? It’s become common for folks with social influence to step outside of their “claim to fame” when interacting with the public to address issues that are socially and politically important to them. This is great ... for them, and those who agree with whatever views they espouse, but it’s not so great for companies they represent that wish to remain politically neutral and sell their widgets to everyone regardless of how they vote/live.
What’s a brand to do?
Well, you might not hold sway over that A-list celebrity standing on stage, but you can — and should — take steps in incentivize your lesser known brand ambassadors to not alienate half of your potential audience. Here’s how:
Establish a vetting process for selecting social influencers.
Having a quick checklist to run through for each potential brand ambassador might sound tedious, and it can be, but it’s much less time-consuming that dealing with damage control that you could’ve prevented. Your vetting checklist should include a search of all primary social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), scanning back at least three months (longer, if they’re less active) and a Google search of their name and any associated screen names to see what comes up. And don’t stop at page one. Look through pages 2 - 5 as well, particularly if they share a lot online.
Have a conversation with highly visible influencers to share concerns and expectations.
Oftentimes a simple conversation can clear up any disconnects and help you assess fit without too much fuss. Have a list of interview questions to ask brand ambassador candidates and very specifically ask if s/he plans to speak to any social or political concerns and if s/he would be willing to not do that during the term of your engagement. If they hesitate, look elsewhere.
Create a contract specifically outlining agreed upon expectations.
Vetting what they’ve said and discussing topics you request they avoid while representing your brand is not enough — you need it in writing. And you need to make it clear that you will immediately distance yourself from them if this happens, and also payment will not be made if the contract is broken, particularly as you’ll be forced to direct resources to managing the crisis they create.
And, of course, even the best laid plans can suddenly go awry, so having a crisis management plan in place regardless is wise. “Personalities” are unpredictable and may forget or decide to ignore even the most legally binding terms when feeling particularly inspired by a cause. You’ll need to get ahead of the backlash and planning your response in motion, as it’s happening, is never a good idea.
There’s no need to draw more attention to yourself by throwing an influencer under the bus, so no point in saying “we discussed Y and are disappointed s/he broke our contract.” Instead, a simple statement releasing the influencer from your engagement and apologizing for any ill will his/her words/actions may have generated is perfectly sufficient. Being prepared to pull corresponding imagery is optional, though unnecessary. The key to responding appropriately requires keeping these points in mind:
Do not attack your former influencer. S/he has supporters and detractors and you do not want to position yourself as taking either side. Merely release him/her from your engagement as your company represents all humans, regardless of social/political stance.
Do not post repeatedly about the matter. Make one statement. Keep it brief. Move on. There will be many who want to debate your decision. If you respond to even one of them, your troubles will snowball and wreak havoc on your time and your sales.
Do not make the same mistake twice. Review your selection process and be sure to catch any opportunities you missed to head this off. There are often warning signs that may not have seemed “so bad” but in hindsight could have saved you many, many hours of unnecessary drama.
Worse case scenarios, where brands contract with outspoken personalities that create chaos, has become a “thing” so most consumers are pretty forgiving when it happens. Just be sure you do your part to head off these situations and move very quickly if something comes up. A slow, indecisive response is not viewed as a thoughtful approach, but something that leaves consumers with lingering doubts about where you stand and whether or not they’re comfortable with that. And with a world of choices available, you can’t afford to create a negative impression.