Safeguarding Corporate Reputation In The Age Of Social Activism

In this age of social activism, powerful forces are fueling a fundamental shift—not only in the influence of social media but also in the rise and fall of brands and leaders.

socialToday, every company is public – shareholders or not. In this age of social activism powerful forces are fueling a fundamental shift, not only in the influence of social media but also in the rise and fall of brands and leaders.

Just last week, it took less than 12 hours for the reputation of Papa John’s founder John Schnatter to crumble completely after news broke that he’d used a racial slur during a recent conference call (ironically, a sensitivity training session). Word of the transgression spread swiftly. By 2 p.m., nine hours after the Forbes story was first fanned by the flames of social media, the pizza baron released a statement acknowledging the “use of inappropriate and hurtful language” and apologizing: “Simply stated, racism has no place in our society.”

It didn’t matter. By 5 p.m., his official association to two of his most beloved institutions – the University of Louisville, where he has a long-held commanding presence as trustee (the football stadium bears his name) and Papa John’s, the empire he built – were severed. Schnatter stepped down as Papa John’s chairman, a resignation that came only months after he was forced to relinquish his post as CEO in the wake of controversial remarks about the National Football League’s handling of anthem protests.

Schnatter, and by association the Papa John’s brand, isn’t the only fall from grace at the hands of an “error in judgment” and trial by public protest. One wrong move – or in the recent case of Roseanne Barr, one egregious tweet – can cost you dearly.

Earlier this month, ABC Entertainment promptly canceled the wildly successful reboot of “Roseanne” after Barr tweeted a racist comment about Valerie Jarrett, a former advisor of Barack Obama’s White House. She apologized, but the damage was done. ABC executives and several cast members, not to mention scores of citizens, private and celebrity, denounced her. Her talent agency dropped her. It only took 11 hours, from tweet to collapse – of career and reputation.

“what’s a company to do when it finds itself in the throes of social backlash? Most important: react quickly.”

Social Media’s Swirl of Discontent: Bad News for Brands?

Granted, this wasn’t Barr’s first racist comment, via Twitter or otherwise. So why now? Today’s heated political climate and constant loops of social media affronts are unprecedented. Employers are on high alert when it comes to the words and behavior of employees. They have no choice. The news cycle, and the speed with which news travels on social media, continue to accelerate. And the window in which brands can get in front of reputation-damaging incidents is increasingly tight. The ability to bury these kinds of stories? Not anymore.

People are plugged into the social news cycle. In the office, one in five employers believe staff is productive fewer than five hours a day, according to a CareerBuilder report. What’s more, their instinct is to call out what they perceive as bad practices. Incidents that not so long ago would have been relatively isolated are now inflaming public sentiment at a breathtaking pace, catching companies wrong-footed and significantly raising the stakes of such missteps.

Take United Airlines. Last year, videos showing security forcibly removing a passenger from a flight went viral before the plane even took off. It sparked such furor that the company’s stock plummeted; its CEO apologized ad nauseum and, ultimately, United refunded the fares of every passenger on that flight. More recently, Uber faced a similar crisis after it appeared to align with President Trump’s refugee ban. At least 200,000 people promptly removed Uber apps from their phones. The viral #DeleteUber campaign began with a single tweet.

The primary difference between what happened with Papa John’s, ABC, United or Uber, and what would have happened 20 years ago is the speed, scale and spread of digital activism.

Back then, people didn’t have the means to raise awareness or mobilize for a cause at such speed or scale. Outrage over the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, for example, eventually led to an award of millions of dollars in damages, but it took months for the scale of the disaster to become clear and years of negotiations. In contrast, today’s companies that make mistakes face considerable damage within days or, as we’ve seen very recently, hours.

Perhaps more significant is the fact that while the age of TV made it possible for acts of protest to be broadcast and catalyzed fairly quickly around the world, it’s the opinion-shaping influence of social media, combined with its reach and speed, that make digital activism so compelling and, increasingly, devastating to brands. Boycotts, spooked investors, ruined careers … the impact on brand reputation and customer/consumer trust can be substantial.

A Communications Call to Arms

So what’s a company to do when it finds itself in the throes of social backlash? Most important: react quickly. Acknowledge the problem and take responsibility. Engage with your audiences and don’t hide from media. Apologize, and take repeated and consistent action to right the wrong. Accountability, transparency and authenticity are your only ways forward. Seek expert counsel and do what it takes to get through this crisis. Then, immediately plan for the next one.

Of course, we all hope there won’t be a next time. But the smartest investment any brand can make is in a reputation strategy – for building it, growing it, defending it and protecting it. There are three key elements regardless of what business you’re in:

  1. Tell your brand’s stories fearlessly and continuously. Proactive public relations and marketing across multiple touchpoints and channels underscore your big ideas, and share your thought leadership. Find and hone your brand voice, and be present and consistent in your messages and tone.
  2. Engage in two-way dialogue.Words matter; actions matter even more. Strong, proactive social and direct engagement with your audiences is paramount to demonstrating that you live and deliver your brand promise. Take every opportunity to be helpful and solve problems, while reinforcing your values with clarity and conviction. This is where trust breeds and thrives.
  3. Listen and respond, swiftly and genuinely.No one wants to hear criticism, but putting your head in the sand and hoping it goes away isn’t an option. Listening to and watching social conversations afford invaluable insight and data on what matters to your audiences and stakeholders, as well as the opportunity to directly address concerns or threats. Knowing what people are saying about you and responding appropriately uphold credibility.

Bad things happen to good brands and good people. It doesn’t help that we’re living in a country led by someone with no communications filter. But business leaders cannot and should not follow suit. As a chief executive, reputation – yours and that of your company – is your responsibility. There are no excuses for not mitigating reputational risks. And the best way to do so is to stop, really think and carefully consider the consequences before you speak or tweet. Your public is listening – and won’t be afraid to call you out.

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