When media outlets' programs spur advertiser boycotts, firms can minimize the damage by not being hasty, but also not writing off complaints.
Companies spend millions of dollars making sure their ads are beyond reproach. Sometimes, however, it's a media outlet's reputation that creates a precarious PR situation for its sponsors.
In the months leading up to the election, the public became increasingly involved in policing whatever they perceived as bias against their favored candidate.
The issue came to a head in October, when media watchdogs and bloggers took the Sinclair Broadcast Group to task for a documentary critical of former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
When Sinclair's advertisers came under attack, Fortune 500 companies and small tire-repair shops alike suddenly faced a swarm of angry phone calls and e-mails demanding the cessation of their advertising.
A major organizer of the Sinclair boycott, boycottsbg.com creator Nick Davis, says that about 150 companies sought to pull their ads from the Sinclair broadcast Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal.
Sinclair ultimately showed a news program interspersed with clips of the controversial piece. Davis, like many of the film's opponents, feels Sinclair planned to air the entire documentary.
Although this was his first time organizing a corporate boycott, Davis says that the number of sponsors who pulled their ads was in line with his expectations.
Davis created a site featuring a list of Sinclair's advertisers, as well as the phone numbers and e-mail addresses for either their PR or general website contacts.
"People were finding this information, and I built the database where people could store it," Davis says.
"We've lost that communication with the broadcasters themselves," he adds, referring to the media consolidation that sometimes leaves affiliates powerless. "[But] the customers of the corporate media [advertisers] can be persuaded."
PRWeek contacted many of the advertisers listed on Davis' list, but they either didn't return calls or declined to comment.
Burger King was one sponsor that pulled its ads the day of the broadcast. In October, Eric Anderson of Coltrin & Associates, Burger King's PR agency, said that the firm "didn't want to appear to be associated with any given political party."
Davis says that while corporations cannot fully guard themselves against boycotts, they can prepare through due diligence.
The PR pros who were interviewed agreed that a firm's initial diligence has as much to do with its goals and values as it does with how ads would affect sales.
"If your company has a set of values and a mission, and you are advertising on a program that has questionable cultural content, [you may need] to rethink [advertising]," says Peter Himler, Edelman's chief media officer and EVP.
"From a long-term basis, [a company should ask,] 'Does it reflect the values and goals of the organization itself?'" says Bill Keegan, SVP and director of Edelman's US crisis and issues management practice.
Crafting a good response
Michael Paranzino initially created boycottcbs.com when CBS was set to air a miniseries about Ronald Reagan in November 2003. Some conservative groups believed the program distorted the former President's legacy.
After the miniseries was moved to Showtime, the site became dormant until the forged-memos scandal hit CBS in September. Paranzino organized his members by sending an e-mail alerting them to what they could do to make a difference. Boycottcbs. com supporters then sent him some of the responses they'd received from companies.
Paranzino says he has been shocked by the platitudes in the letters. "What is stunning is these companies have some of the best PR firms on retainer, but many of the communications from the company end up angering their customers more than before they heard back from the company," he says. "All they'd have to say is, 'We're concerned about it; we're waiting for the report.'"
"Arm your customer service reps with information that explains the reasons behind your decisions," he says. "Make it clear to the callers that you take these things seriously."
"I'm stunned that there's so little awareness that it's much different than a hair in someone's soup," Paranzino says. "When a situation is politically sensitive, you can't send a letter that is minimally responsive."
But Himler notes that a company's best public response is rarely an immediate one. There might be public pressure to address the issue right away, but Himler says a company's internal audience should be the first outlet for communicating its stance.
"Employees, shareholders, and analysts are probably the first audience a company should focus attention on," Himler says.
Even those responses tailored to the issue aren't necessarily going to be appreciated.
In addition to Boycottsbg.com, Davis also created www.badvertiser.com, where he posted General Mills' response to the Sinclair controversy. He says that rather than leaving a positive feeling, the letter incited protesters to demand a continued boycott of General Mills.
The website highlighted this section of the letter in bold: "Companies such as ours, in our view, should not attempt to influence, control, or pre-empt the content of news through the leverage of advertising sponsorship. To do so would undermine that fundamental freedom. We choose to stand with freedom of the press."
The site suggests alternative products and encourages people to respond to General Mills' letter. General Mills did not return calls for comment.
"You cannot prevent special-interest groups from lobbying against certain programs that don't represent their interests," says Annette Cerbone, VP and director of national television and radio for media planning firm Universal McCann.
Cerbone says that Universal McCann and its clients take "one show at a time and one controversy at a time."
"It's not more complex than that," she continues. "We do consult with our clients [about] what the ramifications [of a boycott] might be." Cerbone adds that it's important to also think about what customers and franchisees would think of the ad placement.
"If a company is sitting on a fence [regarding a controversy], we'd recommend pulling out for the next two or three episodes, but not withdraw from the program completely," Cerbone says.
Steve Rubel, CooperKatz VP of client services, advocates doing a gut check to evaluate which complaints have merit, but insists that company representatives keep their ears to the chatter. If one employee is deluged with complaints, he advocates doing a Google search to see who is organizing the boycott.
Michael O'Brien, president and GM of Cohn & Wolfe, New York, says companies need to see if the advocacy group's views are in sync with its own.
In the case of a multinational company providing a range of products to a diverse range of people, he says that a company must consider if the threat will damage the brand.
"If the answer is yes, you might have to back off," O'Brien says. "The pain of pulling out is pretty minimal because there are so many options that it's not an indictment for [a company's] entire media plan."
Picking your battles
Paranzino is a realist, saying that many boycotts fail. Boycotts are inherently hard, he says, and some organizers shoot too high. "The ones that succeed will be targeted and narrow," he says.
Paranzino says that other ineffective boycotts are ones without a short-term outrage. He points out that both CBS and the National Football League escaped the Janet Jackson incident without mass defections.
Paranzino doesn't think companies need to take all boycotts seriously. The primer points for a successful boycott include: Does it touch a closely held belief or part of someone's value or politics? Is there a natural base for a boycott to be started?
Rubel says a political issue will always have multiple viewpoints, and he'd be more concerned with what the viewer feedback is for the individual program.
But companies do take boycotts seriously. When Target announced in January that it would extend its no-solicitation policy to the Salvation Army, it was setting itself up for boycotts from conservative groups, says Paranzino.
But Target hoped to sidestep being a target. Register.com says the retailer bought the domain name boycotttarget.com and other permutations last year.