In today’s hyper-political climate, even a neutral and tame statement from a brand can ignite a social media firestorm. The latest case in point: Keurig finding itself in hot water after a company representative said its ads wouldn’t air during conservative talk show host Sean Hannity’s Fox News Channel show.
The coffee maker’s decision was in response to Hannity’s softball coverage of Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate from Alabama who has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. After the interview aired, Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning watchdog Media Matters, tweeted at Keurig to reconsider its sponsorship of Hannity’s show. The brand replied, "We worked with our media partner and Fox News to stop our ad from airing during [Hannity]."
Keurig wasn’t trying to make a grand political statement, says Mike Fernandez, U.S. CEO at Burson-Marsteller.
"Like many companies have been doing, Keurig was just trying to steer away from, and not into, controversy with a show that had been openly supporting this political figure who is accused of abusing young girls," he explains.
Women’s apparel company Eloquii, vitamin maker Nature’s Bounty, and genetic testing company 23andMe also said on Twitter that they would no longer advertise on Hannity. However, Keurig was the brand subjected to videos of people destroying their Keurig coffee makers in support of Hannity, who initially encouraged their response.
On Twitter, messages popped up with the hashtags #BoycottKeurig and #IStandWithHannity. "Liberals are offended by this video of a Keurig being thrown off of a building," wrote one. "Please retweet to offend a liberal."
As unsettling as the reaction was, Fernandez recommends that Keurig shouldn’t overreact, noting that boycotters are likely not the company’s core consumer base.
"Who do you think is the number one purchaser of Keurig coffee makers? Women. My guess is that Hannity is not that important ultimately to the company," says Fernandez. "They are going to weather this storm...These kind of politically oriented, quick-to-react boycotts rarely go anyplace."
Still, a social media firestorm is an uncomfortable place for an apolitical brand. In a memo to employees, which was quickly leaked to the press and read on air by Hannity, Keurig CEO Bob Gamgort said the company did not intend to "give the appearance of taking sides in an emotionally charged debate that escalated on Twitter and beyond."
Gamgort noted that Keurig’s decision to communicate the company’s short-term media actions on Twitter "was done outside company protocols. Clearly this is an unacceptable situation that requires an overhaul of our issues response and external communications policies."
Keurig did not respond to requests seeking comment. The company works with a handful of PR agencies, including Golin and Cone Communications, according to sources.
Brands are sometimes compelled to take a stand, especially when an issue directly affects their employees or is in conflict with their ethos. Technology giants such as Apple and Google, for example, spoke out against President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries early this year.
However, many communications departments and PR agencies are just trying to keep their brands and products from being politicized—easier said than done in 2017.
"Every piece of digital communications can be inherently politicized," notes Alexandra Kirsch, VP in the digital and social media practice at Finn Partners. "That is true even when it is so innocent and well-meaning, because people will still view it through a political lens. Every decision and statement now has to go through that lens before being made public."
Kirsch acknowledges that process might slow a brand’s response on social media, but notes the alternative is far less desirable.
"Being on one of those lists of worst social media moments is the equivalent of being on a worst-dressed list for the red carpet; no brand wants to see itself there," Kirsch explains. "If a little more time is necessary, some people will be upset and tweeting about it, but that is the minority. The majority of consumers understand it takes time to say something right."
To keep even mundane brand communications from being interpreted as political stances, Fernandez advises that brands should "have a statement ready as to why they are doing something." It should be "linked to who they are and to a stakeholder or group of stakeholders that matter to their enterprise."
Keurig, for instance, could have noted that women are their key consumer group, that it supports their rights, and doesn’t want to be advertising on a program that could offend them.
"You need to make it clear this was a business decision, not a political one," states Fernandez.
Non-political brands also need to take their cues from metrics, says Gene Grabowski, partner at kglobal, who recommends a deep dive into the sentiment of core consumers and online influencers.
"[In Keurig’s case] it might have been better to keep their advertising there until they got pressure from consumers, because then they’re not part of the story," says Grabowski. "But if you get pressure from your consumers, you might not have a choice."
Brands should avoid knee-jerk responses to activist groups, which is what appears to have happened with Keurig’s response to Media Matters, he adds. Consumer boycotts can also be led by small groups of people, whose voices can be amplified by social media.
"A lot of lobby groups project more power than they really have on the top line. Social media amplifies a voice," says Grabowski. "You don’t want to overreact because it can boomerang on you. And you don’t want to appear to be kowtowing to pressure from a small group of people."
Keurig’s situation also highlights the risk of advertising on controversial programs. Richard Keil, EVP at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, recommends more alignment among advertising, marketing, comms, and media buying.
"The departments need to make sure they are all on the same page and know the potential drawbacks to being on each platform," he explains. "You also need to have a plan in the event something happens on a program that goes against your cultural or ethical values. The best surprise is no surprise."