Some brands proactively court controversy as a strategy. This approach can work for upstarts or if the controversy appeals to a brand’s audience.
Restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods ran short videos poking fun at environmentalists’ views on fishing. In an interview, Legal’s owner Roger Berkowitz says the videos "work because you have to be smart to get them. If you are not smart enough to get them, then you are not my target audience."
Berkowitz takes pride in these activities as they generate awareness, social media buzz, and attract a younger audience to Legal Sea’s product.
Whatever category your brand falls into, you need a plan to manage controversy and avoid bad press. For instance, if you are proactively managing controversy, be sure your teams are vigilantly monitoring and proactively responding to all aspects of social and traditional media. Have alternate plans to manage different outcomes and be able to adapt.
If you are in reactive mode, consider the above. Also, be honest regarding the issues and plainly explain them to customers. Communicate plans to resolve the issue and prevent it from recurring. And set up rich customer feedback mechanisms and make them easily and widely accessible.
If your comms strategy incorporates an element of controversy, do your best to understand the negative and positive reactions campaigns may generate, especially if this is your first time using this approach.
Trial and error
To understand the range of reactions your campaign may generate, test your strategy among key stakeholder groups, including target and non-target customer segments, journalists, industry activists, and other stakeholder relationships. This may be a multi-phase process.
Once you identify the good and bad reactions to your approach, develop the next steps for maximizing campaign potential among those who view it positively and how you are going to address the detractors. If you are proactively courting controversy, you can take advantage of time being on your side to test, understand, modify, and plan your strategy.
Subway superbly managed some recent bad press after a blogger revealed that an FDA-approved chemical used in breads sold at the chain was also found in yoga mats and shoe rubber.
Subway quickly issued statements explaining it had already begun removal of the chemical from products. The company even aired ads addressing its bread without alluding to the controversy.
It’s a fine line between bad press and controversy. However, if you are mindful and methodical, controversy can work to your advantage.