To Comment or Not To Comment: How Brands Should Approach Tough Issues

2020 has been a test for small businesses and big companies alike in more ways than one. With a global pandemic and push for social justice reform around the country, many brands are finding themselves at a communications crossroads.

How do you know when you’ve said too much or too little? When is the appropriate time to release a statement? Give a knee-jerk reaction and you might be missing some of the facts, but comment too late and it could look like you are just jumping on the bandwagon. The rise of “cancel culture” has a lot of marketers worried that if they say the wrong thing—or the right thing in the wrong way or at the wrong time—their audiences could turn on them.

Or so it seems. We’re here to argue that companies who take a stand will find the consumers who align their core values and be better off for it.

Deciding when and how to comment on a major social or political issue is more art than science. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, despite the repetitive cookie-cutter messages you may have seen over the last six months. Each issue will affect an audience in different ways and a brand’s role should be to respond with purpose and in an authentic way.

To help marketing and PR pros navigate the tricky stuff, our team at REED has compiled three quick questions that brands should ask themselves when deciding how to respond:

Why are we commenting on this?

Is this issue relevant to our brand? Does it impact our customers, employees and/or operations? A major factor that can lead to backlash, according to a 2018 study by Sprout Social, is commenting on issues that don’t impact you or your audiences. Offering comments on something that is not relevant to you or that you have no perspective on (think an all-white male board commenting on issues affecting female minorities) reduces credibility and makes you look opportunistic. Before weighing in, do your research and ask yourself if you are commenting because an issue affects your brand and its audiences or because you want to use the latest trendy hashtag on social media.

If an issue affects your consumers but not necessarily your business operations, consider developing a way to get real insight from those impacted. Adding diversity to your leadership team to serve as a sounding board is an excellent place to start and begin listening.

Do we have a moral obligation to take a stand on this issue?

Some issues affect everyone. Whether you are a small business or Fortune 500 company, you play a role in shaping your community.  Supporting a cause or a movement is about more than making a good PR move—it’s about the responsibility you have as a brand to do the right thing even if it could lead to a revenue dip.

The most obvious example of this is the deluge of companies that have shown support for Black Lives Matter over the last few months even if they have been notoriously quiet in the past. Another example is the growing number of major corporations pulling advertising dollars away from Facebook citing the platform’s “repeated failure to meaningfully address the vast proliferation of hate on its platforms” aka hate speech. Brands like The North Face and Upwork are willing to miss out on those ultra-targeted ads in an effort to pressure Facebook to make a change.

How do we ensure our comments are authentic and genuine?

We’re huge advocates for leading with your core values in all of your company communications, but it is even more important when addressing a major social or political issue. If you are mission-driven company, making the call on when to comment and what to say will be infinitely easier. Take a cue from Nike – a company that has been a vocal supporter of Colin Kaepernick’s on-field protests because they align with the company’s values of never giving up and rising to the challenge. Nike recently made more waves with an ad being called an “editing marvel” aimed at rallying sports fans during a time of COVID-19 shutdowns and social unrest. They are a tried-and-true example that if you lean into your core values, you will find your ideal customer will respect that you took a stand.

If you don’t have a set of core values defined, we recommend starting with your customer. It’s likely that you know what your core values are based on the needs you are already filling for your audience.

In the end, brands can’t be everything to everyone. Especially when talking about social and political issues, a brand is likely to alienate some outliers when making a comment. However, you’re even more likely to gain loyal, raving fans for taking a position. Herbert Bayard Swope, notable PR consultant and journalist, said it best: “I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.”