Branding Social Etiquette in the Age of Trump

Opinion: In this new era, playing it safe isn’t an option; even worse, it can be social suicide

A hacker invasion is taking off on social media. Breaking into social media accounts from companies such as Good Morning America and McDonald’s, hackers are tweeting at the president. Some are declaring support, while others are hitting out with profanity-laden slurs, prompting marketers into social media crisis-control.

Of course, it’s not just hackers launching political debate online. Under a Donald Trump presidency, political conversations are trending on Twitter. Trump’s own tweets are a force to be reckoned with. And the sight of the @realDonaldTrump handle can strike fear into the heart of any brand manager.

Businesses on social media are coerced into political discussion by consumers, trolls and even the president himself. Neutrality is no longer a safe option, and it is often interpreted as tacit agreement. Increasingly, companies of all sizes are expected to display social responsibility and be vocal about big issues. They are learning to navigate this new brand landscape, where one wrong step can lead to a mass consumer brand boycott, or plummeting stock value.

But this is also an opportunity for brands to connect with consumers by initiating positive conversations. Some have succeeded, while others have failed miserably, leaving more than just a bad taste. There are lessons in social etiquette playing out live in our news feeds.

Death by Trump tweet

Trump has used Twitter to publicly berate brands such as General Motors and Toyota for business decisions he opposes. Toyota executives reportedly spent days crafting the perfect defense to diplomatically quash inaccuracies. Regardless, in these two instances, stock prices dove and pro-Trump followers launched brand boycotts.

This type of viral campaigning is becoming increasingly common from both the left and the right, and more organized anti-Trump efforts are also gaining momentum. The Trump Watchdog, for example, unearths Trump connections. Consumer watchdog Grab Your Wallet drives organized mass boycotts, targeting Trump family-affiliated brands. They’ve targeted Amazon and Bloomingdale’s, among many others, launching large-scale boycotts, and even have Firefox and Chrome extensions warning browsing shoppers of known Trump ties.

Whether a brand spars or sides with Trump, it risks the unpredictable ferocity of Twitter. But while nervous public-relations executives steer clear of Trump alliances, opting for “no comment” on political moves, consumers expect more. They’re demanding brands to show their true colors and share their political ideologies.

Online political social responsibility

Corporate social responsibility has seen a renaissance under a divisive Trump presidency. While political rhetoric dominates online, companies are taking the opportunity to launch provocative campaigns that celebrate the values they uphold.

When brands become ambassadors for social movements by aligning their missions with a greater cause, it makes for powerful PR. The New York Times has done just this, singing of its endeavors to uncover “the truth” in the face of so-called “alternative facts” from the White House.

Market research firm YouGov claims that 67 percent of U.S. adults support politically motivated brand boycotts and 59 percent would boycott a brand’s product or service if they disagreed with the company’s stance on a political issue. Brands know this, and it means developing a new form of public corporate responsibility, treading carefully for fear of consumer rebukes.

Nevertheless, many have persisted in attempts to clamber onto this bandwagon, although not all have been successful—most notably, recently, the Pepsi “Live Bolder” campaign. The TV commercial featured Kendall Jenner joining a peace protest, and it was heavily criticized on social media for its portrayal of a sensitive topic.

Managing political decorum and consistency in all marketing efforts continues to challenge brands, and many are reaching out to consultants, communications and public-affairs experts for protection. Politico Focus, the native advertising branch of Politico, offers a service to help brands and agencies engage with political issues, connecting them with political influencers. Brands are also touting new CSR initiatives outside of persuasive ad campaigns—Starbucks vowed to hire 10,000 refugees and Patagonia stepped up efforts to defend the world’s climate.

Fighting trolls that hijack conversations

When brands launch campaigns that support social or political issues that stray from mainstream interests, they inevitably open themselves up to trolling. This isn’t just political debate: It’s turning into hate speech and, on sites like Twitter, it’s rampant.

Nike recently launched its Pro Hijab line, providing athleisure attire for Muslim women. When CNN tweeted about the upcoming line, Twitter trolls went to town over Islamic rights and women’s oppression. At a time when social activism is expected, this culture of trolls is paralyzing brands that balk at important conversations for fear of public shaming.

Twitter is using new measures to identify trolls and preventing them from opening new accounts, also enabling muted or collapsed “potentially abusive and low-quality” conversations. Alphabet subsidiary tech incubator Jigsaw is also turning to advanced computing to clean up the Internet, with a set of tools called Conversation AI. Wired’s Andy Greenberg explained that the software uses machine learning far beyond basic keyword searches or YouTube flags to expose trolls and create a safer environment for debate.

These initiatives are still in early production, and Twitter trolls and hackers are still a very real threat to businesses. It means brands need to vigilant and, as McDonald’s and others have learned, social media security and around-the-clock surveillance is essential to protect brand reputation and safe discussions.

In the age of Trump politics, there is plenty to debate. Rather than shying away from new social responsibilities, emerging services and technology creates spaces for these conversations. Brands rely on social media to track trending issues that speak to consumers, targeting hashtags and users and shouting about their own efforts. Political conversations come with risk, but they are also an opportunity for brands to be proactive, to promote their visions and to connect with their fans.

In this new era, playing it safe isn’t an option. Even worse, it can be social suicide.

Jenny Wolfram is founder and CEO of BrandBastion, which offers automated global real-time social media support for brands 24/7.