New and potentially more dangerous kinds of crises, politically driven crises, are today threatening businesses as well as most other types of organizations.
We’re not referring here to macro political crises such wars or revolutions, which would obviously hinder operations, and should of course be planned for if your organization operates in unstable areas. We’re talking about micro political crises, that require their own, unique preparations.
Today’s micro political crises don’t only relate to major political parties, though they often do, such as when Ron DeSantis attacks the Disney Corporation, reflecting the country’s deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans. Notably, Disney dropped from #37 on the Axios Harris 100 list of top brands to #77 as one result of that attack.
Politically driven crises are often not directly related to political parties but are more culturally related. They come from various groups representing agendas based on gender, religion, race, class, age, disabilities, and so on.
When Anheuser-Busch tried last spring to expand its market for Bud Light, its marketers made public overtures to the trans community, a radical switch from Bud Light’s usual target audiences. The backlash among Bud Light’s long-established customers was swift, with immediate calls to boycott the product. And they were effective. The company reported that its revenue in the second quarter fell more than 10 percent from a year earlier, “primarily due to the volume decline of Bud Light.”
THE COVID PANDEMIC HELPED DRIVE POLITICAL CRISES
While there have been precedents in past years for other politically driven crises, it was the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in the Spring of 2020 that solidified and accelerated conditions leading to a sharp increase in politically driven crises. An NIH study found that politicians appeared in COVID newspaper coverage more frequently than scientists, and that the high degree of politicization in initial COVID-19 coverage “may have contributed to polarization in U.S. COVID-19 attitudes,” according to NIH. To mask, not to mask? Vaccines required/not required? Open schools? Close schools? It was a mine field for all organizations, but it taught us a few lessons that can help inform our crisis planning:
- Everything is now more politicized leaving organizations increasingly vulnerable to politically driven crises
- Public trust of experts and institutions has been seriously eroded, making it more difficult to convey facts to a public that is increasingly confused, fearful, outraged and divided
- The spread of misinformation is rampant, exacerbating political and cultural conflict
- Some political disagreements are irreconcilable, putting companies in a no-win situation
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A TRADITIONAL CRISIS AND A POLITICAL/CULTURAL CRISIS
Politically driven crises are fundamentally different from traditional crises, such as a natural disaster, a sexual harassment accusation, an active shooter, a cyberattack, etc. Those traditional crises certainly can take a devastating toll on an organization. But, in time, and it might take several years, there usually is recovery. Boeing is back selling even more of its 737 Max planes after two of them crashed several years ago. VW is back, transitioning to electric vehicles, after suffering major brand erosion after its criminal behaviors were revealed during its emissions scandal known as “dieselgate.” With a politically and culturally driven crisis, you could suddenly lose a large percentage of your customers and never get them back.
EMPLOYEES AND CUSTOMERS ARE ALWAYS AT THE CENTER OF THE POLITICAL CRISIS
If a sizeable proportion of your organization’s employees believe one way on an issue and the majority of customers buying your products and services may believe an opposite way, your organization could be unpleasantly surprised by a backlash.
For example, if your employees pressure your organization to take a stand on a political issue, e.g., observe diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) practices when hiring, a significant proportion of your customers may be railing against DEI. Not knowing where your customers stand on an issue that’s near and dear to your employees is a clear vulnerability that could precipitate a crisis, leading to loss of business, boycotts, negative media attention and investor concern.
Conversely, suddenly taking on politically charged positions because of customer pressures at odds with your employees’ predominant political views would inevitably impact employee morale, create a corrosive work environment, lead to employee attrition, negative publicity in traditional and social media and lasting brand and reputational damage.
PREPARE NOW FOR A POLITICAL CRISIS
- Align Your Organization’s Core Values And Its Messaging So Customers Know Exactly What You Stand For
If your organization doesn’t have a long, visible track record taking political positions that are part of your brand identity, such as Patagonia and Chic-Fil-A have done successfully, then suddenly taking a political stance, or suddenly withdrawing from one, makes you vulnerable to political attacks. Last year, Target unexpectedly took down its Pride Day flags, which they had been doing for ten years, when some customers protested. That made Target look like flip-floppers causing lasting damage to the brand.
- Be Consistent
Patagonia and its robust environmental positions are an example where its political views are consistent with its products, how they’re made and sourced. Their political views are part and parcel with their brand which reduces the risk of alienating consumers. And it’s not a coincidence that Patagonia has consistently been rated at the very top of the Axios/Harris Poll that gauges the reputations of the most visible brands in America.
If your brand proudly includes a political/cultural positioning, then you have to own it, consistently and forcibly, and accept the fact that you could lose customers, employees, investors, etc. over a particular political position. Some companies have been exemplary in owning their politics, e.g., Chic-Fil-A, at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Patagonia, was ranked number 5 on the Axios/Harris Poll. But strategically taking supporting positions on issues that most people agree on, things that build local communities such as causes relating to healthcare, sports, and education, could be a smart branding move for many organizations.
- Focus on Products and Services
While many polls show that Americans say they care about the values of the companies they interact with, polls also show that Americans care more about the quality of products. In fact, they don’t necessarily want to think about politics at all. So, if your organization is not overtly politically engaged, it’s best to stay that way as much as possible.
But the risks remain, because even non-political organizations find themselves targeted by groups inadvertently, as was the case when Burger King headlined its ads on International Women’s Day encouraging women to become chefs with the clickbait line, “Women belong in the kitchen.” Cute, right? Women’s groups didn’t think so, and they objected vociferously even when they acknowledged the headline was designed to draw attention to a worthy cause. Burger King apologized and removed the ads.
- Really Know Your Stakeholders
Invest in a concerted effort to better understand the political/cultural views of your employees and your customers. Using surveys, focus groups, social media analysis, and other methods, you can better assess the views of different age groups, people with different political affiliations, religious values, genders, etc. Is there an obvious gap between your employees’ views and those of your customers? Are they in agreement with each other? Is it a mixed bag of confusion?
The conclusion is, crisis planners have to strive for internal and external communications and marketing efforts that are based on a clear understanding of employees’ AND customers’ political and cultural sentiments. Your research findings will equip you to better anticipate politically driven crisis scenarios that you can make part of your crisis planning. And those plans should be validated and improved with regular tabletop exercises.
* * *
David Kalson is an expert in issues and crisis management. He has more than 25 years experience providing strategic communications counsel, on-the-ground assistance and highly targeted media relations and “new media” programs to manage issues and crises as well as reputation enhancement for both profit and not-for-profit organizations. Business sectors he has counseled include energy, food and beverage, financial services, healthcare, consumer products and technology. He has designed and implemented communication / media relations programs, often emphasizing Web-based strategies, to address issues including data security breaches, environmental accidents, product recalls, financial problems, high-profile lawsuits, corporate governance issues, criminal behavior, attacks by opposition groups, government/regulatory challenges, competitive challenges and labor disputes. Companies he has counseled in relation to crisis drills, plans and crisis management include Cargill, Dunkin’ Brands, Cadbury Schweppes, Staples, Entergy, Eli Lilly, Canaport LNG and the American Automobile Association (AAA)