How “good intentions” can create a backlash 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, or so they say.  

A brand might have the best intentions in its social content and marketing, but if it fails to live up to its promises, it could cause a backlash.  

In recent years, we’ve seen a few brands saying what they thought was the right thing, supporting a cause or a movement, for example, but getting it horribly wrong, because their words and actions didn’t align. (Often, that’s because they don’t have a diverse team sense-checking what they’re doing, not just what they’re saying.) 

In 2022, we had some interesting conversations with marketing and communications directors of large brands about the changing types of crises they’re facing. They’re used to being worried about the big continuity issues that could bring their business to a standstill (like a massive data breach, or a storm, or now Covid), and they mostly have plans for those, which they exercise regularly. They’re the ‘comfort zone’ of crisis, if you like.  

But often the things keeping them awake at night is the thought of a being on the wrong side of a social movement, facing a backlash for saying or doing the wrong thing. How do they navigate this new world of conscious consumers and values-driven employees? When should they get involved in a public debate on a social issue or topical event and when should they stay quiet? And if they’re dragged into a divisive or polarising issue, how do they handle it? Should they avoid anything that’s seen as ‘political’?   

These are all areas we’ll be looking at in detail over the next few weeks.  

As a starting point, here are a few questions to ask when you’re deciding whether to get involved in a debate on a social or topical issue:  

  1. Do you have form talking about this area, or is it completely out of character? For example, if your social media conversations are usually about interior design, you might consider whether it will jar with your audiences if you start talking about politics.  
  1. Do you have permission to talk about the issue? If you genuinely have a reason and an interest in a social or environmental issue, and you’re doing something about it, then you probably have permission to discuss it. If you’re a fashion brand, then talking about sustainability is hugely important, but you have to walk the talk.  
  1. Are you doing something tangible to help? We love how Morrisons supermarket responded to the issue of period poverty by creating its Package for Sandy initiative – where any customer can go up to the customer service desk, ask for a “package for Sandy” and be given a brown envelope full of free period products. It’s a great example of a brand using its power to make a real difference on an important issue.  
  1. Do your audience need to hear this from you and are you adding value to the discussion? The death of Queen Elizabeth last year was all over the news. No-one needed to hear about it from their local supermarket. If your business had a royal connection, that’s different.  
  1. Is there a possibility you’re exploiting an issue to promote yourself? If there’s even the tiniest suspicion that this might be the case, don’t do it.  
  1. Have you asked someone closer to the issue whether what you’re saying is a good idea? So many badly thought-through campaigns could be avoided this way. If you want to know whether your Pride ad is going to cause a backlash, ask a diverse LGBTQ+ team to look at it, within the wider context of your business. (M&S’ LGBT sandwich, launched for Pride, seems cute until you consider whether M&S would sell it in its new Saudi Arabia stores.) 

Ultimately, whether to get involved comes down to what action you’ve taken, rather than what you want to say. You might have the best intention, but if your behaviour doesn’t match up, there could be a backlash in the offing.  

Featured image by Ian Schneider on Unsplash 

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People don’t want pledges, they want action
Aligning your values to your behaviour can avoid a reputation crisis

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