What To Do If Your Brand Is Boycotted



Recently, Starbucks found itself on the wrong end of a boycott, being wrongly lumped into a list of companies that were lobbying the government for relaxed GMO laws. It turned out that Starbucks itself was not involved, but that didn’t stop thousands of people online from boycotting Starbucks and inviting friends and family to do the same. Could this situation have been prevented? Yes. Could it have been handled better by Starbucks? Absolutely.

What would your brand do if one day, you were boycotted?

Never before have consumers been so empowered to be able to stand up for their own values through their wallets – and been so empowered to engage in boycotting and similar behaviors because companies increasingly share information about their inner workings. There are two responses to this: brands can close off, or they can engage in a dialogue with detractors. It used to be that no good brand would ever dream of engaging, and now it’s reversed; no good brand would dream of not engaging.

Planning ahead: always better than a good defense.

Something every organization should be doing twice a year is a basic “brand hygiene” check. That consists of looking online at what types of mentions your brand is getting while checking what is known in the public about your brand, and looking ahead to possible issues consumers might have with your brand going forward. This step will help you put together one of your most essential documents: a messaging matrix (or emergency messaging document) that has all the official responses to the most frequent objections to your brand.

What goes in an emergency messaging plan

When creating an emergency messaging plan, you will need to assemble four key lists:

  • Your brand’s biggest potential pain points as well as brand-friendly articles and their sources
  • Point people with authority who can be mobilized at short notice to approve messaging
  • Approved “canned” responses that can be deployed instantly by front-line social and customer-care staff
  • Friendly social media accounts, high-influence fans of your brand, brand-friendly bloggers, and press to mobilize your message quickly

The idea is to move as quickly as possible to contain the objecting parties while providing an airtight-as-possible counter message and delivering it through trusted channels — those with whom you have good relationships.

How to deploy your emergency messaging plan

During your twice-yearly review of your plan, you should look at the news clippings and the top searches for your brand that come up on search engines and social media. Hone your plan, and then practice it. The only way to get a plan off the ground is to hold a drill of what you would do if it were an actual situation. This can reveal any holes in your plan, or whether roles previously assigned to certain people need to be reassigned. Plan to go through real-life scenarios and quiz your team members on the correct methods of correcting them.

What you should resist trying

Don’t immediately issue news releases with imprecise language or “sorry IF offense was caused.” Assume if you’re being boycotted offense is being caused. Look for the emotional reasons why people might object to you, address those feelings, and provide language that addresses solutions or a commitment to making the situation right.

Do not immediately engage media if you can resist it. This isn’t always possible, because executives like immediate solutions. But look for ways to address the objections in a more personal manner online to show those boycotting you care and are serious.

Once you’ve put your emergency plan in action

Look for trends in the tide of online discourse. Are you being heard? Is the public interested in hearing from you? Take heed of verbatims – if you’re tonally or factually incorrect, expect to be called on it — and make sure you’re able to competently address the situation when that happens.

Look for the ringleaders and attempt to engage with them directly. There are always leaders in these situations, and often they are not hard to find. Sometimes, the feeling of simply being heard and suggestions taken on board is enough to quell these individuals. Make sure you keep meticulous notes and communication trails, and make sure only one person is point for these individuals.

Engage brand-friendly social media accounts and bloggers by giving them a line into your company; a point person they can address directly. This can calm many complainers. Make sure a real human responds to them.

Boycotting is not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world with a well-trained staff that can quickly execute an emergency messaging plan and dedicated point people at the ready to calm the situation.


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