'Who wouldn't agree with that?': PR pros on Unilever's threat to pull ads from social media

Eight top industry execs told PRWeek their thoughts on the CPG giant's decision.

Unilever's Keith Weed. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Unilever's Keith Weed. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

PR executives are on the same page as Unilever marcomms leader Keith Weed, who has threatened to pull ads from Facebook and YouTube unless they do more to monitor fake news and brands inadvertently funding terrorism or child exploitation.

Here’s how eight industry pros reacted to Unilever’s decision.

Renee Wilson, president, PR Council
I applaud Unilever’s strong stance. It’s a great example of advocacy and action, two bedrocks of public relations. Leaders must walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Weed and Unilever are prioritizing investing in responsible platforms committed to a positive impact on society – who wouldn’t agree with that? He’s also correct in that consumers don’t care about online advertising measurement issues but they do want to support companies that are trying to make this world a better place. I think this is a great example of a movement we are continuing to see with business leaders becoming activists.

Andy Pharoah, VP of corporate affairs and strategic initiatives, Mars
This issue extends beyond fake news, it applies to inappropriate content, extremism, racism, and gender portrayal. This year will be pivotal. Tech companies will have to decide if and how they will take accountability for pioneering safety protocols on their channels. There is a need to move beyond "just a platform" thinking.

We expect our digital partners to stick to the same standard to which we hold ourselves and all of our other partners, suppliers, and agencies accountable. If there isn’t progress, I think we could see companies ultimately shifting their advertising strategy in the digital space, because it doesn’t align with their values and so doesn’t bode well for reputation.

It was these brand safety concerns that lead us to pulling all YouTube advertising in late November 2017. Since then, we have seen marked progress by Google responding to our concerns and we plan a phased return. But the price of brand safety will always be eternal vigilance.

Laura Tomasetti, CEO, 360PR+
I applaud [Weed’s] leadership and believe consumers will stand behind brands and be more inclined to use social platforms that seek to raise the bar on the content we consume, including the context in which that content appears. The shine is off of many of the social platforms, and we need solutions to improve the experience and, with it, trust.

Christopher Graves, former global CEO and chair of Ogilvy Public Relations and founder of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science
[Weed] is correct to call out the threat and bold to see Unilever's role as more than exploiting a hugely powerful social platform by choosing to sell only where intentional (as opposed to haphazard) decency, integrity, and transparency align with their values. We have seen throughout history that the clout of commercial spending can be a force for good, sometimes faster and more effective than regulations, when it comes to big companies demanding a set of higher operational values from all who deal with them (including agencies). But in order for Facebook to take on an interventionist role in weeding out mental malware, it risks confirming its role as media operator, and all the implications of that role, rather than remaining the neutral platform it claims to be. Therein lies the friction.

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer, P&G
Brands are judged by the company they keep, which is why we’ve insisted on brand safety – so we know our ads show up in the right place, not in objectionable content. There is still work to do, but I’m encouraged by the progress made over the past year to clean up the digital media supply chain, driven by the entire industry stepping up to take action.

Tim Donovan, head of corporate communications, Fundbox
I applaud Unilever for taking a more stern position on fake news. Brands have tremendous influence in amplifying news and information either directly or indirectly. None should support in anyway, the syndication of misinformation. So pulling back on their ad spend is the fastest way to hold social and content distribution platforms more accountable.

Bill Zucker, partner and MD, Ketchum Midwest and Canada
Brands that advertise heavily should recognize that they are being judged, in part, by the company they keep. A decade ago, that meant being cautious as to what TV shows they would sponsor or who their spokesperson would be. Today, we are seeing it’s much more complex. Brands want to make sure they are sponsoring content that is legitimate, accurate, and appropriate for what they stand for. And they are finding that hard to decipher. It’s one reason we will continue to help brands tell their stories in trusted earned spaces and on their own platforms to ensure they can be confident in the company they are keeping.

Howard Pulchin, global creative director, APCO
What stood out to me in Unilever’s announcement was its emphasis on both advocacy and action. It’s no longer enough to simply express a point of view. There is a growing expectation that businesses must play a more active role in our society to address the challenges we’re facing, and people are aligning themselves with the companies that embrace that role.

For instance, I was impressed by Patagonia’s launch of its new platform, Patagonia Action Works, last week. It’s not only a continuation of their efforts to protect the environment, but it also creates a way to bring customers and citizens along on that journey with them.

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