PR pros raise concerns as brands ditch online ads in Daily Mail, Sun and Express

PR pros have warned that "efforts to bully media" can easily appear as misconceived brand activism, after several firms promised to stop their ads from appearing on the websites of three right-leaning news titles.

Evans Cycles has 'blacklisted' its ads appearing in the Daily Mail, Sun and Express
Evans Cycles has 'blacklisted' its ads appearing in the Daily Mail, Sun and Express

Campaign group Stop Funding Hate uses social media to urge brands to pull advertising from outlets, including the Daily Mail, Express and the Sun, which it deems to have a negative editorial stance on various social issues.

In February, The Body Shop followed Lego's example, and publically distanced itself from the Mail, saying it had no plans to advertise in the newspaper, citing the beauty product brand's "ethical stance".

Last week, fashion brand Joy followed, after ads in the Mail and Express were placed next to what it deemed "transphobic and racist" articles. A spokesman for the Mail hit back against Joy's claims, saying the article in question was "neither transphobic nor racist... it was a satirical take", and said Joy was guilty of "caving in to a tiny pressure group seeking to suppress legitimate debate and impose its views on others".

The latest brand to do the same is Evans Cycles, which has "blacklisted" ad placements appearing on the Daily Mail, Sun and Express. A spokesman for the retailer said: "Whilst we hadn't previously targeted these outlets specifically, we were made aware that our programmatic advertising campaigns were appearing next to content that is very obviously at odds with our values. As a result, we have excluded these outlets from displaying any of our advertising campaigns."

Stop Funding Hate director Richard Wilson said: "Amid widespread public concern over the rise in racism and hate crime, brands are increasingly recognising that appearing alongside inflammatory and divisive content is bad for their business."

'Defend the relationship or end it'

Looking back over these examples, Gerry Hopkinson, co-founder at PR agency Unity, said that if customers or other stakeholders object to a brand's relationship with anyone, there are two clear choices: defend the relationship or end it.

Hopkinson said: "The abiding reputation management principle of acting deliberately, thoughtfully and after ascertaining all the facts cannot be overstated. In either case, you must think carefully and explain your decision clearly."

He said it was evident that a number of the brands mentioned above had acted after listening to customers and examining their views, and that while the media may not like it, they have no grounds for complaint.

But he added: "However, I do worry about efforts to bully media in the same way I worry about media who are a little too eager to please advertisers at the expense of their editorial integrity. Ultimately, we are best served by a robust, independent and free press, whether we agree with all they say or not."

No points for knee-jerk reaction to public shaming

Emma Hazan, global head of consumer at Hotwire, said brands should not cave in to pressure groups or be bullied into making business decisions.

Hazan said: "Brand activism is to be applauded when done right, but if it's a knee-jerk reaction to public shaming, that's not going to earn you any points."

Hazan questioned whether the brands named above had consulted with their comms people about their decisions, or just their legal and marketing departments.

"If so, are these comms teams now also pulling the likes of the Daily Mail and Daily Express from their press lists too? I'm not so sure.

"The point here is that brands need to ensure that if these knee-jerk decisions are made, there is then consistency across the organisation, so they have one approach going forward. It's not going to look so good for Joy if we see an article in the Daily Mail in a few weeks' time featuring one of their winter coats in a fashion round-up."

Quietly put your values into practice

Marshall Manson, CEO at Ogilvy PR UK, said brands had a duty to participate in and enable conversations and debate. "Choosing not to fund publishers with whom they or their audiences disagree, is a compelling way to do so," Manson said.

He went on to say: "Of course, most brands aren’t aiming for a homogenised audience. So big, public action can result in just as much negative impact as positive. The best course, it seems to me, is for brands to make their choices quietly. Put their own values into practice, but to do so without the megaphone."

Boycott is just a 'publicity stunt'

In a statement to PRWeek, a spokesman for the Daily Mail labelled the boycotts a "publicity stunt", adding that its effect on the Mail's ad revenue was "precisely zero, because neither Evans Cycles nor Joy advertise in the newspaper". In Joy's case, the advertising was placed through third parties.

In the case of Evans Cycles, the spokesman said: "The article which prompted their reaction was not even published by the Daily Mail, but by The Mail on Sunday - an autonomous operation with its own editor and journalistic staff - more than 15 years ago.

"What should concern any reputable PR agency is the very negative message sent by Evans Cycles and Joy to the millions of people who read the Daily Mail, many of whom will be their customers and now feel they are not welcome in their shops.

"It is very disturbing that an otherwise reputable business should seek cheap publicity by cravenly surrendering to a group of individuals seeking to suppress legitimate debate and impose their views on others by trolling them on social media. Is this what Evans Cycles mean by 'core values'?"

Presenting a united front

While appropriate brand activism is to be applauded, as highlighted above, it is also clear that boycotting and even bullying a media organisation is considered a risky strategy. 

It would seem that PR professionals and members of the press are united in the belief that this approach is at best a knee-jerk reaction to pressure and at worst a suppression of free speech.

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