Social Media Marketing: Should I Take a Stance on Controversial Issues?

We live in a rapidly changing world — and every change is a trust-building exercise between brands and their audiences. As a brand, your social media speaks to who you are and what you stand for. Whether it’s a crisis (like a global pandemic), or a movement (#BlackLivesMatter), changes in the societal landscape are an opportunity to be a part of the conversation.

According to Edelman, 81% of consumers “must be able to trust the brand to do what is right with their product, for customers, and for society.”

Social media has become a key space for people to find connection and community. In this space, brands have the unique opportunity to connect with their audience on a personal level. Being a part of the conversation and engaging in meaningful dialogue personifies a brand, increasing relevance and customer loyalty. 

Let’s take a look at the current #BlackLivesMatter movement, for example:

Business Insider reports that “brands are more likely to be viewed unfavorably if they make no official statement.” In fact, research shows that no stance at all is the only stance (or, rather, lack thereof) that resulted in negative favorability across the board. Both white and black adults were clear: They expect brands to take a stance.

We’ve seen a spectrum of stances from brands throughout this movement: from controversial, to strong and clear, to subdued, to vague and insincere (these are the stances that inspired the #PullUpOrShutUp sub-movement — a call for beauty brands to show the diversity statistics on their rosters and prove that they take the same stance in their boardrooms and budgets that they took in the public eye). 

Brands like Ben & Jerry’s exemplified a strong, but controversial stance, posting the message “We Must Dismantle White Supremacy” across their social media accounts. Others, like Microsoft, have shown strong positioning with less controversial language, pledging to use their social media as “a platform to amplify voices from the Black and African American communities at Microsoft.”

The stance you choose to take on your official brand socials isn’t the only one that matters — how representatives of your brand use their personal socials can have serious consequences. For example, Greg Glassman, CEO and Founder of CrossFit, took to Twitter to post a controversial tweet about the death of George Floyd. The fallout was swift: Almost immediately, gyms began striking their affiliations with CrossFit; a number of athletes announced a boycott of the 2020 CrossFit Games; allegations of sexism began to surface in the CrossFit community; and Greg Glassman was forced to resign from his position as CEO.

The comments and reactions of the public are varied across brands and their stances. It will likely take time and a few quarterly earnings reports before we can fully understand the impact these brands’ stances will have on the futures of their businesses. But, there are key takeaways we can learn from them right now.

Key Takeaways: How Does this Apply to My Brand?

Next time you find yourself representing a brand in the middle of a changing social climate, ask yourself these questions:

  • Should I take a stance?
    • Evaluate the impact your positioning may have on your business. What are the risks? What are your worst- and best-case scenarios?
    • Know your audience. Acknowledge that any stance you take may put you at risk of alienating a segment of your customer base. Take thoughtful action, paired with thoughtful communication, to mitigate this risk.
    • Take stock of your corporate and personal values. How do they impact your next move?
    • If you ultimately choose not to take a stance: Take. A. Break. Be prepared to stay decidedly silent until the social climate cools. Your regularly scheduled programming and planned posts will, at best, fall flat in a sea of stances, and, at worst, lose you favorability in the eyes of your customers. You do not want to come off as tone deaf. If you have scheduled content on any platform, hit pause.
  • How can I be authentic in my stance?
    • If you choose to take a stance, think about the tough questions your audience will ask (see the #PullUpOrShutUp campaign, for example).
    • Don’t just say; Do. Actions speak louder than words. You must have a plan of action to back up the stance you take. Proactively prepare to put your money where your mouth is, because your audience will ask you to.
  • How do I word this?
    • Phrasing matters — especially in instances like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, where entire people groups are watching and being addressed. Find out who the experts are on the topic at hand and follow in their footsteps. This will help you avoid inadvertently insulting or alienating your audience with semantic missteps. For example, there is a technical difference between the terms “black people” and “POC” — the details can make or break your post.
    • Put your best communicator on the task of writing out your post. Then, have trusted team members and third parties pick it apart. Think of this like QA testing for your socials: Try to find the cracks in it, because your audience will.
  • How can I stay respectfully engaged in the conversation?
    • Choosing to be a part of the conversation isn’t a one-post deal — you can’t just say “This is where I stand” and drop the mic. Resource plenty of trusted social media community managers to engage with your audience and embody your voice, because the comments will come flooding in, and your audience will expect responses.
    • Be respectful in conversations with others — comments sections are public, screenshots can be taken of direct messages, and the world is watching. Identify who your point people are for jumping in to diplomatically respond to difficult messages, and make sure anyone monitoring your socials has access to them and knows when to reach out.
    • Listening is an important part of a conversation: Have a social listening plan in place. Set up Google alerts, keyword searches, or platforms like Keyhole to see global insights and stay in-the-know about the situation.
  • Who represents my brand?
    • Think about the employees whose personal opinions and socials have an impact on your brand image. It may not be the responsibility of your customer service representatives to be mindful of the impact their posts could have on the business — but it is certainly the responsibility of your chief executives.
    • Create a guideline for the social media usage of these brand representatives. Be clear with them about the stakes and the worst-case scenarios of their personal posts. Don’t forget — a simple screenshot can turn the posts of a private account public, so simply hitting the private button probably isn’t good enough.

The task of representing a brand well in a volatile social climate can be daunting. But, if you follow the guide above, you can view every change as a trust-building exercise between you and your audience.