Marketers can learn a lot from the online kerfuffle surrounding JCPenney’s hiring Ellen Degeneres as a spokeswoman. JCPenney's successful navigation of politically tricky waters stands in contrast to the Susan G. Komen debacle that occurred a few weeks earlier.
In both cases, political and personal views boiled to the surface in social conversations across Twitter, Facebook, and newer channels such as Pinterest. But JCPenney handled its naysayers differently than Komen did.
JCPenney is standing strong and consistent. It seems keenly aware that this surge of attention can make or break its brand. By contrast, Komen’s approach seemed arrogant and out of touch. I don’t think Komen had any clue how quickly social network-powered protests could galvanize against them. JCPenney apparently understands how to ride this turbulent wave with the right balance of head and heart.
Here are some key factors that any brand should keep in mind to chart a clear course through unpredictable, emotional, and politically charged online storms
Examine your heart. The core values of your company must come from the top and be clear. Brands such as Zappos know that everything hinges on clearly communicating those values throughout the company, to customers, and to the general public. Zappos publishes its values on its Website.
Be truthful and consistent. Don’t lie. On the Internet, lies are revealed, repeated, and retweeted faster than you can retract them. Then they remain online to haunt you. Before you commit to anything publicly, know exactly where you stand, what you want to say, and how you will react to what is being said by your customers and the public online.
Don’t clam up. JCPenney could have hunkered down when One Million Moms came out with their manifesto and spent days or weeks powwowing about how to handle this backlash. Instead, it faced the protests head on and garnered the level of PR exposure that you only dream your marketing dollars will buy. Statements from JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson were prompt and genuine. Ellen also took an uncharacteristic stand on her show in a warm, articulate, heartfelt manner, using her very public spotlight to address the issues head-on.
Take the high road. Don’t bash your haters. JCPenney’s Johnson didn’t disparage One Million Moms but instead acknowledged that “one of the great things about America is people can speak their mind.” It is easy to take a cheap shot at the naysayers or to ignore, underestimate, and dismiss. But being respectful -- especially in a heated situation -- speaks volumes about your company and your brand.
No company can ever predict the reactions online to their business decisions, dealings, and campaigns. But one thing is certain: Consumers have unprecedented access to global publishing tools and inter-linked virtual soapboxes, and their praise and complaints spread rapidly. Starting with a deep and honest examination of where you stand before taking a stand, and understanding the turbocharged word-of-mouth of social networking, can help keep your brand afloat.
Social media can be a bit like a minefield, especially for well-known entities. One false step and the net unleashes its fury of thousands of anonymous voices. The nice thing is, next week those same furious folks are usually onto something else.
JCP handled things well by not lashing back against the moms; this certainly will help take the sting away a bit.
It looks like when faced with trouble, the best thing to do is face it head-on. Hiding burned Carnival too, while Moisés Chiullan recovered the Avenger controller PR disaster by taking questions and comments using Reddit.
@smkinoshita absolutely. Otherwise things can descend into personal attacks that get really ugly -- like some of the flaming comments you can see on blogs or even on YouTube videos. It really boils down to being able to disagree agreeably.
But also (just to keep it complicated) responses should be firm and really firm. The deadliest sign you can give off is "unless of course someone is offended and then we'll do anything to placate them." It pulls in social media attack the way "C'mon, guys, this isn't funny ..." used to set off bullies on the schoolyard, and for similar reasons.
Social media can quickly elicit a firestorm and yes it can quickly die down but the flames can be rapidly fire up again as seen with Netflix last year. The key for companies is to understand how to manage social media with Pr experts versus in managing social PR.
Here's a recent story that was resolved even quicker than the SBK one. Target pulled from its shelves a Valentine's Day card that made a joke about stalking.
The source of the uproar, which started on Twitter, is nearly as interesting: Former porn actress Ginger Lee, most famously known as the one who went public about then Congressman Anthony Weiner prodding her to lie about their online relationship. Ms. Lee, herself a victim of a stalker for the past two years, said: "I can't believe a multinational company that says they are involved in the community is making light of a terrible thing like stalking."
The card, which on the front read "stalker is a harsh word" has on the inside the words, "i prefer valentine."
@Ellis. Thanks for sharing this. I find this interesting for a number of reasons: how the card read in the first place (sensitive subject matter, although I don't doubt that many will find humor in it), the source of the uproar, and how Target worked to resolve it. Good move by them.
When watching companies handle such situations, the one thing I prefer to see is a strong stance in one position; as you state/advise. I feel Netflix could have learned from some of these notes as their wavering positions and poor choices led me to cancel and switch to Hulu. I think with the way social media can deliver messages and share opinions, the impossible goal of pleasing everybody has become even more impossible. Because of this, I think companies need to rely on honesty and consistency so those who don't agree may atleast develop a level of respect.
Don't lie. On the Internet, lies are revealed, repeated, and retweeted faster than you can retract them.
True, true. The number one rule is to think before you speak--otherwise, you could have it reversed and used against you in an instant. The thing with social media, as you've mentioned, is that everything will spread like wildfire. You only need one spark to start the fire, and once it's lit, it will take a great deal of time to put off.
It required a bit of iron nerve, but if Penney's marketing intel was any good, they probably already knew that
1) the slightly-above-median middle class women "value shopping demographic" that is their backbone was one in which many, many women have openly gay friends and coworkers (partly due to the industries where Penneys shoppers are concentrated)
2) Ellen Degeneres is very well-liked in that same demographic and her talk show guest list is slanted heavily toward them; she brings the people they like, and would like to see, on the air, and interviews them in a very positive, respectful way.
3) One Million Moms bears several marks of being an astroturf organization: only about 40k Facebook followers, no public bodies-on-the-street events, claims of victory every time a sponsor drops a program, and a set of vague testimonials that indicate an old, churchy, prudish base (again, not the way that a woman who wants to look stylish on a budget and wear something well made that will last a while tends to see herself).
So someone at Penney's very likely looked and said "OMM doesn't win a lot and it's not clear there really is an OMM. Ellen Degeneres works well for us among exactly the people we want to sell to. Next." And then had the good sense to say that firmly in public.
Great article and kudos to J.C. Penny for not caving to pressure and understanding who their true marekt is and what they value. Jeers to Susan B. Komen. I an organization who professes to have the best interest of women at heart should make sure they hire people to work for and represent them to have the whole health and well being of women in mind, not just support for the parts they like
My guess is that Susan is looking down wondering, how could they get it so wrong? Where was the Board in a decision of such magnitude? And how could they betray the organization's core values so committed to research and science? And finally, how why did they allow themselves to become corrupted by a political agenda that is the antithesis of everything the foundation stood for?
This wasn't a brand mistake; that's another article about licensing and greed (way too many pink ribbons out there!). This was a fundamental values shift, and a terribly disappointing one at that.
@barbara krafte - Everything that happens in the "real world" with our companies, organizations and brands can get amplified in social networks. Make bad decisions offline, the spotlight can get heated online. Not understanding that magnifying effect is a miss on Komen's part.
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