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Navigating Social Media in The Age of Online Controversy

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There’s just not much room for error on social media these days. All it takes is a few individuals to find something wrong with a brand’s message. Within minutes, word can spread like wildfire and everyone logged into any of the major social media sites will have been exposed to and can often add to the backlash. 

Social Media Backlash Through The Years

There’s no denying that the rules of social media changed in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. In 2017, Adweek published an article titled “Branding Social Etiquette in the Age of Trump” that discusses how social media etiquette changed with Trump in office. “Under a Donald Trump presidency, political conversations are trending on Twitter,” writes Jenny Wolfram. She mentions that even when businesses want no part of it, they are coerced into discussion on politics by consumers as the public looks to companies and brands to pick sides. As Wolfram puts it, “One wrong step can lead to a mass consumer boycott or a plummeting stock value.”

Her insight holds true today. From the 2017 “Live Bolder” Pepsi campaign that showed Kendall Jenner ending a political protest by offering a Pepsi as a token of peace to police officers to the Bud Light controversy of 2023, we’ve seen that as much as social media changes, it’s revelry in a brand’s tone-deaf mistakes stays constant. 

How to Handle Online Backlash

The bad news is that there’s no surefire way for a company to prevent criticism from the public, no matter what political or socially relevant or responsible messages they choose to make. So how, in a world in which consumers want brands to take a stand for political and social issues, can an organization protect itself against becoming kindle for internet outrage?  

There are ways to prevent a complete brand meltdown when criticism occurs, and a good crisis team can lead you through it.

In the case of Pepsi, apologizing quickly and getting back to business worked, since the company has a pre-established respected, recognizable brand. Bud Light on the other hand, fumbled its apology, refusing to stand behind the influencer it hired, neither winning back the customers it lost by working with a Trans influencer nor gaining new fans by proudly standing for Trans rights. Bud Light’s failure to quickly and decisively take ownership of its decision led to a drawn-out online outcry from both left- and right-leaning accounts. 

How to Spurn Conversation Rather Than Cancellation 

But the most effective tool for any company when wading into online activism is actually creating a campaign that opens up dialogue and reflects political conversations in a nuanced and informed way. This means avoiding pitfalls by bringing the right people to the table and “screen-testing” social messaging and online political campaigns with a diverse group – or better yet, creating diverse teams to work on them. Brands can certainly be both effective and retain their customer base when wading into political issues. 

Between offering crisis management, communications and public relations strategies, TASC can help your organization navigate how to best handle controversy online. Explore our comprehensive range of PR and Communications services to discover how we can assist in brand management. 

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