You know that feeling. That sinking, pit-in-your stomach feeling that washes over you when you realize your company has said or done something wrong. Maybe something very wrong.
You could find out in many ways. Maybe a customer posted something on social media, raised the issue to an employee, or contacted customer service. Maybe the media saw it trending first and called for comment. If you have a good monitoring system in place, you saw the issue starting to trend before it became a full-blown crisis. But while you’re researching the situation and determining your response, keyboard warriors are driving it to the top of the Twitter feed, tagging media outlets, elected representatives, company executives, board members, and activist groups—who are now using it to promote their agenda. The bigger your brand or company, the more likely even small issues can escalate quickly.
Here’s the thing:
- Everyone says/does stupid, even hurtful, things at some point. Companies are run by imperfect human beings of different backgrounds who, no matter how smart, make mistakes. (As I write this, Ken Jennings of “Jeopardy” fame is apologizing for insensitive tweets.)
- It doesn’t matter what your intention was. Perception is reality, as Netflix found out with its marketing of Cuties, a film intended to draw attention to the dangers of sexualizing young girls.
- No matter what you do (or don’t do), someone will take issue with it. There are people who will rightly call out your organization for something insensitive or offensive. And there are those who will criticize you for apologizing. Know your company values and do the right thing.
COMMON MARKETING MISSTEPS
First, let’s look at the areas where companies most frequently make mistakes:
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI): The sensitivity and importance of issues involving equality, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, and culture cannot be overstated, both in the U.S. and internationally. There are many instances of mistakes, from the egregious blackface imagery in a Prada storefront and a Gucci sweater to the clumsy and disrespectful misspelling of the name of W.E.B. Du Bois (followed by a tweet that misspelled “apologies”) in a Department of Education tweet during Black History Month.
- Politics: While often connected to other issues, growing political divisions and brash social media campaigns wielded by political parties, activists, and NGOs make this an area to watch. This is particularly important overseas, as multiple companies have run afoul the Chinese government over the characterization of territories as separate countries.
- Sex, objectification, and violence: Products or campaigns that condone or glamorize inappropriate behavior are frequent areas for concern and range from skimpy Halloween costumes for tween girls to a highly insensitive Snapchat ad that invoked domestic violence against a domestic violence survivor.
- Timing, context, and language: Your marketing is experienced through the filter of individual and collective experiences, background, culture, and current events. Examples of missteps here include an email from Adidas congratulating Boston Marathon finishers for having “survived” the event only four years after the deadly bombing and a Chicago TV station that used a symbol from Nazi Germany in its story about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and one of Judaism’s high holy days.
With Marketing Missteps, an ounce of prevention…
Of course, it’s best to prevent the missteps in the first place. Here are some lessons from leading companies to make sure your marketing gets attention for the right reasons.
- Values: Are your company values clear, actionable, and well-understood throughout the organization? Better yet, are they used as a litmus test for your marketing? It may sound obvious, yet company apologies are rife with “this doesn’t align with our values” language.
- Boundaries: If have a cutting-edge brand, where’s the line between edgy and insensitive? Offbeat and offensive? Help your marketing teams understand these boundaries. Your company invests significant resources in creating and driving your brand, and keeping people aligned on boundaries is a way to protect that investment.
- Education: We don’t know what we don’t know, but we all can learn. Seek out and regularly consult with experts in the community, including academia, non-profits, public safety, and other organizations. Their knowledge is invaluable, and it’s easier to stand up for what’s right and be accountable when you have allies in the community.
- Training: Train employees who create and approve your internal and external communications, including those in marketing, communications, product development, sales, and customer service. This should be on top of the robust DEI training and responsibilities that you’re driving throughout the organization.
- Accountability: It’s everyone’s job to protect the brand and to treat each other with dignity and respect. However, it’s challenging to ask everyone to stay current on all imagery, symbols, terms, groups, nuances, dates, and events to consider, especially as movements evolve. Develop a plan for creating a strong baseline of knowledge and staying current on emerging information.
- Tap the expertise of outside partners and organizations to help you stay up to date on what’s offensive, from hate symbols to language that’s not inclusive.
- Have a master calendar of holidays, important dates, and commemorations in the countries in which you operate. It sounds basic, but many companies don’t have this. It can also help you be proactive in recognizing important moments, respecting global employees, and engaging your workforce.
- Consider creating or certifying experts within your company who can provide continuing education to others.
- Know who is approved to post and communicate publicly on your company’s behalf.
- NOTE: The goal is not to make this one person’s or team’s job and absolve everyone else of responsibility. The goal is to make sure you have a process for keeping employees current in their education so everyone can be good stewards of the brand.
- Processes: Budget time and money for thorough reviews to make sure all materials align with your brand standards and values. Test ideas with employee resource groups or involve them in the development process. Have monitoring systems and escalation processes in place to identify and address issues quickly.
- Culture: Have a culture where people are encouraged to speak up and concerns are taken seriously. When you see a marketing misstep and think, “How did someone at the company NOT notice that?!” I can guarantee you someone noticed it. Employees don’t bring up concerns because:
- They thought that it must be okay, or the company wouldn’t have created/approved it.
- They didn’t want to disrupt schedules or budgets.
- They thought they wouldn’t be heard, or (worse) labeled as too sensitive or a troublemaker.
- Or, they did bring it up and someone didn’t listen. Teach people to listen—really listen—at all levels of the organization. It’s critical to our learning and growth in these critical areas.
RESPOND AND RECOVER WHEN MARKETING MISSTEPS HAPPENS
If you have an issue, quickly gather your leaders and crisis team to address it. Don’t let your corporate sympathetic nervous system go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Consider the following steps:
- Determine if you have a crisis. Overreacting can create an issue where one wouldn’t exist otherwise and make your company a target in the future. Look at the severity and nature of your mistake, the criticism you’re getting, how much traction there is, and if it’s crossed over to activist organizations or media.
- Don’t just remove the offensive piece and think the issue will go away. By the time you do that, someone is already sharing screenshots of it.
- Apologize quickly, but thoughtfully. This is the most important step in your response. A late apology will be perceived as further insensitivity, as will a hasty, ill-conceived one. An effective apology is:
- Timely: Most social media experts say to respond within 12 hours.
- Humble: This is a mea culpa. This isn’t a time to demonstrate your prowess at anything. You’re listening, learning, and will grow from this.
- Authentic: Avoid jargon and corporate-speak, and don’t make it artificially short or long. Too short and it will be seen as not genuine, too long and you’ll be perceived as trying to justify your actions.
- Specific, introspective, and empathetic: Acknowledge the mistake and the hurt it caused. Put yourself in the shoes of those most impacted. This is about them, not you.
- Accountable: Accept responsibility for the offensive material, what you’ve learned from this, and how you’ll do better in the future. Keep any commitments realistic or you set your employees and company up for future failure.
- Direct: No qualifications. “We’re sorry, but…” is not an apology.
- Look at your marketing and communications calendar. What press releases, events, announcements, or social media posts are scheduled? Hit pause on anything automatic until you know the severity of the crisis and your response.
- Don’t make it worse. Your company needs to apologize, listen, learn, and grow from the issue without trying to make everyone happy or getting dragged into a battle between competing sides.
- Be wary of extreme viewpoints and organizations that have more to gain from your failure than from your growth, or those who want to claim your improvements as their victory.
- Don’t needlessly prolong public engagement, especially on social media, as it keeps the issue alive and distracts from your recovery and improvement efforts.
The good news is that, should you have a marketing crisis, your company can emerge from it and be stronger in the future. With the right values and culture in place, you can create the training, processes, and tools needed to drive your brand and recover from mistakes.
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About the Author: Lena Michaud
Lena is a communications executive with 25 years of experience in the areas of public relations, crisis communications, media training, internal communications, change management, and speech writing and coaching.
She previously held leadership roles at Target Corporation, Optum (UnitedHealth Group), Cargill, and JCPenney, and has nearly 15 years of experience in the retail industry. Lena has served as a media spokesperson on critical issues in the areas of public affairs, social issues and activism, safety and security, corporate governance, human resources, and litigation, and most recently led communications related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She holds a B.A. in political science from Northwestern University and an advanced marketing certification from Southern Methodist University.
Learn more about Lena on her LinkedIn Profile