Over the past few weeks, brands have been stepping inadvertently into a proverbial black hole when it comes to their social media content marketing: politics.
In Hong Kong, after the final Occupy Central camp on Harcourt Road in Admiralty was cleared in mid-December, the most politically charged discussions currently revolve around how the chief executive should be elected, which in turn spin off smaller black holes centred around central characters in these debates such as government officials and their families.
Two brands and one media organisation have published social media content about these politicians or a member of their family over the last three weeks.
On 8 January, activity tracker brand Fitbit found itself flamed by social media fans because it re-posted an Apple Daily news story about chief secretary Carrie Lam wearing a product by the brand. On the day of the post, the brand’s Hong Kong Facebook page received four times its typical number of daily likes.
Fitbit and its social media agency Daylight Partnership deleted the post and allowed comments about the post to die down.
On 22 January, free magazine HK Magazine published an interview with chief executive CY Leung’s daughter Chai Yan Leung, who had posted on Facebook that Hong Kong taxpayers fund her necklaces, shoes, dresses and clutches last October, when the Occupy Central protests were still ongoing.
After HK Magazine posted a link to its Chai Yan Leung interview on Facebook, it has received around 274 comments, 235 likes and 419 shares to date. Some users threatened to stop following the publication’s Facebook page.
Not only did HK Magazine retain the post it published, it also shared the story again yesterday and that Facebook post has received around 91 likes, 24 comments and 19 shares so far.
This past Sunday, on the morning of the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon, sports brand PUMA posted a photograph on its Facebook page of a T-shirt bearing a number tag that said “D7689″.
Occupy Central protesters have referred to chief executive CY Leung as “689”, referring to the number of votes he received from the 1,200-member electoral committee when he was elected during the March 2012 chief executive elections.
“D7″ is phonetically similar to a swear word in Hong Kong. Put together with “689”, “D7689″ sounds like a derogatory slogan directed at CY Leung.
The brand’s page received some positive comments from pro-Occupy Facebook users who vowed to buy products from the brand to support its political stance.
Meanwhile, Facebook user Clement Wong posted a screenshot of his email to PUMA CEO Bjoern Gulden expressing his anger about the post, which he deemed to be political.
After the post was removed on Sunday afternoon, some Facebook users commented on posts published before and after the D7689 post, criticising the brand’s decision to delete the “D7689″ post.
Wong published screenshots of two emails yesterday. First is a screenshot of an email from Gulden which said PUMA does not support any political stance. Second is a screenshot of an email from PUMA Asia Pacific and Japan GM Ludovic Manzon apologising and giving an account of what happened.
PUMA has not published any statement regarding its stance or any apology.
Is politics a topic that brands should avoid as a general rule? If they do inadvertently set off a PR crisis with a social media post that is at least interpreted as political, what should they do?
Clara Shek, MD at Ogilvy PR, and Joe Pan, director of marketing and communications at FastTrack, differentiate between siding with political party viewpoints, and taking a stance on values and ideologies that may be championed by a political party, which are less likely to be seen as belonging exclusively to one particular political party or faction.
“We should first carefully consider what the brand stands for, its brand ideals, values and personality before considering if it should delve into political discussions,” Shek said.
“Although getting involved in politics is like playing with fire, I believe brands can play a key role in facilitating certain social changes and creating greater good for the community. Driving certain social causes that consumers also support would be a great way to connect with consumers on a more emotional level.”
She added that taking actions may be more effective than taking a stance because they help address pressing needs in society by example.
Shek added: “Actions will potentially bring people together as opposed to views that may divide people.”
“Instead of endorsing a political party or candidate, I recommend brands to take a stance on worthy causes, be it social or political, that are aligned with what the brand stands for and its core business.”
Meanwhile, Pan, who has a background in PR and crisis management, agrees that brands should focus on values rather than taking sides in a political debate.
“Brands, especially consumer brands, should avoid giving any impression of siding with one political party or view over another, as their customers and consumers who are on the other side will react or eventually attack,” Pan said.
“There is no problem, however, with brands taking a stand on the values or even ideologies shared or advocated by a specific political party.”
Even in the case of Hong Kong’s current state of political polarisation between pro- and anti-Occupy camps, Pan believes a stance can be taken with regard to values.
“In the case of Hong Kong’s recent political and civil upheaval and polarisation, no one can blame a brand for endorsing the right to freedom of speech and the pursuit of democracy for which any political camp will rally,” he said.
“There are plenty of international brands such as Patagonia, Oxfam and Fairtrade, which have built their brands on a singular political stance on environmental protection.”
For Thomas Brown, director of strategy and marketing at The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), a brand can take a political stance provided that it gets the tone right and its social media content with which it makes the stance is not offensive.
“Political topics where you are likely to cause offense should be no-go areas for brands. The same may not apply to the media,” Brown said.
“But you don’t have to stay away from politics completely. It’s all about getting the tone right.”
He takes Coca Cola’s smoothie brand Innocent as an example.
In August 2013, Real Madrid paid Manchester United £86 million in transfer fees for football player Gareth Bale. After this was announced, Innocent tweeted “Real Madrid, have you really thought this through?” along with a graphic of all the things you could buy with £86 million, including over 46 million bottles of the brand’s smoothies.
Below are examples of quirky Instagram posts by Innocent on issues such as LGBT rights, environmental protection and even Cadbury Creme Eggs.
“Innocent is very good at leveraging events in its social media strategy. If you use the event well and get the tone right, it is an opportunity,” Brown said.
If a brand decides to take the risk of posting political content on social media, Shek recommends conducting thorough research and being prepared for potential backlash in advance.
“Any strategy should start with listening. Social listening will help the brand feel the pulse of its audience’s stand on the issue, their overall sentiment, and if it ties in with its brand values. The brand should then consider thoroughly if that social or political stance is tied to its core business, objectives and value system,” Shek said.
“Brands that choose to share their stance on social media also need to be prepared for a backlash from people who may not identify with their stance.
In the case of a PR crisis arising out of taking a political stance, Shek recommends transparency.
“As social media is a platform to share, brands should share their views transparently on the rationale behind certain thinking or actions so there is closure, as opposed to avoiding or leaving it to speculation or interpretation by others,” she said.
Pan also believes brands planning to take a political stance should prepare a media response and crisis plan in advance and to tell the truth, apologise and clarify without taking sides if a PR crisis arises out of it.
“Think it through within the organisation so you can have a consistent and unified voice when responding to criticism or attacks,” he said.
“Deleting any post will not make the issue go away. The best is to tell the truth, even if it’s a unintended message by a member of frontline staff. Then, the brand spokesperson should issue an apology or clarification while sticking to the media crisis plan and not taking any sides.”
In the long run, Brown said brands should have a social media policy framework in place that strikes a balance between setting ground rules and giving frontline members of staff sufficient autonomy to publish timely content.
“If there are too many rules, you can’t get the kind of interaction you need on social media. But if there are no rules, it’s like not having etiquette in a restaurant. Just as you would not barge over to another table and take another guest’s drink and join in a conversation you were invited to join, brands should not barge onto social media where consumers are having a conversation and just shouting things out. Social media is all about listening,” he said.
“Frontline staff should not escalate a situation but you can’t manage every decision – you should give them freedom within a framework and communicate and train them about your social media policy, such as during induction.”
Brown suggests implementing a traffic light system where different sorts of questions or comments or situations are triaged by how likely they will trigger a full-blown crisis and whether input from a manager is needed, with situations flagged as red, amber or green.
“For example, content and comments relating to politics, religion and government might be red and frontline staff should go to a senior manager for that. A customer service complaint might fall under amber while a complaint about another Facebook fan’s comment might be green,” Brown said.
“Because the Internet has a permanent memory and screenshots of social media posts are shared very quickly, it’s worth taking the time to train staff internally and invest in that training to avoid bigger problems further down the line.”