The country's charged political environment is engulfing even the most benign brands, as a divided populace scrutinizes every move for signs of partisanship. With the president incessantly tweeting—sometimes directly at marketers like Delta and L.L. Bean—and new executive orders and policies emerging and inciting emotion and protests nationwide, it's near impossible for brands to find cover. But should they keep out of the fray? According to communications experts, brands can absolutely join the discussion, but they have to ask a few key questions first.
"As far as getting involved in particular issues, some questions to ask include: How important is your relationship with the administration? What's your status or relationship with the administration and have you been active in building a relationship with key government officials?" said Jim Moorhead, senior counselor in APCO Worldwide's International Advisory Council.
He added that brands also have to ask themselves, "Is this issue important to you from a business or values standpoint and do your stakeholders and employees expect to hear from you on this issue?"
Clearly, that was the motivation for Starbucks, which has been a leader for years in human rights issues such as equal treatment of the LGBTQ community, to take action. The coffee company recently made a statement against President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration to bar Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., suspend all refugee admissions for 120 days, and block citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S. for 90 days. What's more, Starbucks plans to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years.
Rob Flaherty, partner, chairman and CEO of Ketchum, said there's a growing expectation for CEOs and companies to at least decide if they're going to comment on social issues. If they do, they must be clear in their statements.
"First off, you should delineate whether you're responding to the factual impact of a policy on employees or customers of your brand, or are you offering opinions for or against a policy on principle? There's a big difference," said Mr. Flaherty.
When it comes to the immigration ban, Mr. Flaherty said, if a brand does business or has employees in any of the seven impacted countries, it must figure out how to communicate on the issue—either with factual commentary or personal beliefs.
But in this environment, every business decision can take on political undertones, intended or not. Last weekend, Uber saw major social media backlash, including a trending hashtag, #DeleteUber, after it suspended surge pricing at JFK Airport in New York City during a taxi strike against Mr. Trump's immigration order. To make up for the blunder, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted the next day that the travel ban "is against everything Uber stands for."
Because the news cycle is so fleeting nowadays, Josh Isay, managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, said it's important for companies to look at the long play when deciding to take either an oppositional or supportive voice on any policy. "It has to be seen with a long-term view. Not just 'Am I going to gain customers on a Saturday at JFK?' but rather 'What does this say about my brand and positioning in the marketplace?' "
But what about the times when a brand gets thrown into a conversation without any warning? President Trump recently put L.L. Bean in the hot seat by thanking via Twitter the founder's granddaughter, who sits on the retailer's board but is not an executive, for donating money to his campaign. He also tweeted, "Buy L.L. Bean."
The tweet prompted anti-Trump group Grab Your Wallet to put L.L. Bean on its boycott list. To extinguish the fire, L.L. Bean released a statement on Facebook saying that the company, which has 50-plus family member-owners, "does not endorse political candidates, take positions on political matters, or make political contributions."
Delta also took a direct Twitter hit from the White House when the president blamed airport congestion not on his immigration policy, but on the airline's computer glitch. Delta posted to Twitter updates on the flight delays for its fliers, but did not tweet a response to the president.
If a Trump tweet directly addresses a business, Harlan Loeb, global chair of Edelman's crisis and risk practice, said the company should respond, "but engage purely on fact and be short and to the point." He added that there's no reason to "poke the bear" or act antagonistically, but a brand should definitely engage if specifically called out.
Mike Fernandez, CEO of Burson-Marsteller USA, said the decision to respond or not to a direct tweet depends on the situation. "When there's a person in your family who is known for making statements that you prefer them not to, sometimes it's best to just ignore them, and then other times, if it hits at the core of what your brand is all about, you may find a need to respond," he said.