Why brands should approach social issues like someone with an allergy

Panelists at the WhipSmart 2.0 conference had a message for brands: Stay in your socially conscious lane and be authentic.

(L-R) Casey DePalma, Dan Mazei, Chris Rackliffe
(L-R) Casey DePalma, Dan Mazei, Chris Rackliffe

NEW YORK: Engaging with social issues only works when it authentically aligns with company culture, said brand experts at the WhipSmart 2.0 conference in New York on Thursday.

The event was hosted by social media research company NewsWhip, which invited comms pros to discuss the rise of socially conscious brands and how to successfully address sensitive cultural or political issues.

It’s important for brands not to become involved in an issue just because they can, warned panelist Dan Mazei, head of Reebok’s global newsroom.

He explained that brands are weighing in on certain decisions that they should really be avoiding. As an analogy, he said it’s similar to someone with a gluten intolerance wanting to eat "a delicious sandwich" others are eating.

"Of course the opportunity is there and no one will stop you," said Mazei. "But they should be really thinking about if it fits and if they have an allergy."

When he’s deciding if Reebok should comment on an issue, Mazei said he evaluates if it will be authentic to the company, "not just now, but over its 123-year history."

Panelist Casey DePalma, director of digital engagement and PR for Unilever, echoed that sentiment. Unilever was founded, she said, on a "mission of making cleanliness commonplace." It’s why Unilever’s Vaseline Healing Project is a good match.

The project gives away Vaseline products and medical supplies, along with training needed to people affected by poverty or emergencies around the world.

"Relevancy and authenticity have never been more important," DePalma said. "But cheap relevancy is not going to work. You really have to think about: what are you adding value about? Do you have a right to speak about this? Have you earned this?"

Brands can even participate in very controversial issues like mental health and suicide, but they need a reason to do it and must be able to back it up, said panelist Chris Rackliffe, director of social media engagement strategy for Aetna.

Sometimes it helps to participate in a conversation even when it doesn’t directly involve your own customers, he added.

"Were going out and engaging people and we don’t even know if they are Aetna members," Rackliffe said. "It’s demonstrating that we do care about your health and we are listening. And it’s not just rooted in the idea that we only talk to you when you come in and complain to us or have a claim."

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