Peter Horst, Founder, CMO Inc.

Brands are more frequently finding themselves in the crosshairs on social media or in other media due to controversy over their perceived missteps, or misperceived missteps, or sometimes, just because they’ve been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In those instances, it’s important your organization has identified its values and has a plan. Peter Horst, Fortune 500 CMO and author discussed the issue and offered some advice in the CMO Club Virtual Roundtable, Marketing in the Era of #FakeNews.

“Consumers now expect brands to take a stand and make a difference,” Horst said. “That becomes a pretty tricky business – if you weigh in, you may make a lot of people happy but at the same time, you may make a lot of people unhappy.”

At the same time, consumers can view silence as complicity.

“(Consumers think that) if we don’t hear from you, we can assume you have no values, or you become an empty vessel that is whatever we say you are,” Horst said. “Life is pretty tricky for those of us that manage brand and reputation.”

However, he argued there is a spectrum of positions that a brand can adopt that are not polar extremes. On what he termed the “brand risk-relevance curve,” Horst identified four spots organizations can land as far as weighing risk of negative reaction against the relevance to consumer concerns.

Values.  At the least risky end of the spectrum, an organization can identify its own values internally. Perhaps it doesn’t want to weigh in publicly for a variety of reasons, but an organization can go through the process and introspection in identifying what the organization stands for and what are its values. This is key, Horst said, because even if you don’t want to comment publicly, something could happen where you must, and it’s important to have a response ready.

Purpose. Climbing slightly up the curve in terms of risk, but still maintaining some neutrality, an organization can define universal, evergreen, very positive issues that it wishes to embrace. For example, Horst cited Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. “Purpose is characterized by not being terribly controversial – people aren’t going to rise up against it,” he said.

Issues. “Here, you’re moving into spikey, current, timely, tension-filled topics,” Horst said. These still may not be “for and against” issues, but an organization can take a standpoint on issues that are more likely to generate a mix of feelings, and have more urgency, he said.

Position.In this posture you do choose to stake out a position–you’re saying you are for “X” and against “Y,” he said. Nike did this with Colin Kaepernick by deciding to come down on Kaepernick’s side, Horst said. “There was some lively debate afterwards,” he said. “I thought it was a bold, long-term smart bet; but others thought it was brand suicide.”

Brands don’t need to stay in one place on this curve. For example, Patagonia was very devoted to brand purpose, Horst said. The company cherished the national wilderness. But when an executive order abolished millions of acres of national park, then, overnight Patagonia move from purpose to position. They did it in the moment, without focus groups or round tables, because they knew who they were and their values were clear, Horst said.

“To do anything except step in would have been to abdicate those values,” he said.

No one right answer exists for all brands, but all brands should at least get to the heart of their values.

“As we’ve seen over and over, it’s a world where there’s almost no position where everyone will agree, but when it’s clear why you believe what you do, then you have a chance that people respect you for it,” Horst said.

If you’re going to step into the arena and engage in a topic, choose your issues carefully.

This can be a spot where companies go wrong. It’s easy, even with the best of intentions, to engage in a topic where your voice is not welcome, Horst pointed out. These three considerations may help:

  • Is this an important issue to society? Does it matter? It is worth the time and energy?
  • Is there some brand truth that relates to this issue? There needs to be an authentic, genuine connection between brand and issue.
  • And finally, is there brand permission? It may be an important issue, and the brand may have a connection, but it’s not enough just to have a valid connection, Horst said. There needs to be some openness by the people closest to the issue that shows your voice is welcome and valid.

Whatever road a brand chooses, it’s important to start internally, from leadership to board to employees, Horst said. Don’t steam roll over objections: either respect them or turn them around and get them on board.

“Any time you embark on any of this, it really needs to be a thorough process that ensures alignment across the system – that you have buy in, consensus and real skin in the game,” Horst said. “Because whether or not you weigh in publicly, but especially if you do weigh in publicly, your odds of being on the hot seat go up.”

“The last thing you want is to be out there under fire and have people pointing fingers at each other and second guessing each other.”