Brands—whose marketing calendars were already disrupted from a tumultuous 2020—are now confronting another decision as they weigh whether to move forward with marketing announcements, campaigns and social media activity amid the chaos in Washington D.C.
At least three major brands delayed marketing announcements slated for Thursday, and PR agencies were again having to advise clients on how to react to news events—this time regarding the rioting in D.C. at the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump supporters.
“A lot of clients are pausing all social media activity,” according to one advertising executive at a major agency.
ICF Next, a marketing agency with blue-chip PR clients, slowed down its media outreach on Wednesday. “In 2020 we had unfortunately a lot of practice managing these disruptive moments, whether it was the pandemic or various social unrest,” says Jeremy Mullman, a partner at the agency. “The watchword we gave [clients] was either to be helpful or be quiet.”
Bill Zucker, a managing director at PR agency Ketchum, says: “My best advice for brands is to read the mood of the nation and ask whether near-team activations or campaigns will seem insensitive or tone-deaf given the harsh reality of what is happening in Washington and beyond. If a brand’s plans are not complementary to the conversation happening right now, it’s time to hit the pause button.”
Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, also urged caution. “If you are a brand and you were planning some very lighthearted effort in the next couple of days, you might want to relook at that because that is not going to connect with the tonality of the country,” he says. That especially includes any social media activity, he says. “Emotions are so high right now that it is very easy to cause a real ruckus with a poorly considered comment.”
Said Amy Cheronis, founding partner of The Scratch Collective: "If every brand waits until the dust settles, they may be waiting a very long time. While we’re all trapped in our homes, devouring television and scouring Twitter, there is an undeniable opportunity for certain brands to create a connection and resonance. If you’re introducing chocolate-sriracha cereal from a company with no established commitment to issues of the day, I’d stay on the sideline until after inauguration. But if you have a true and authentic track record as a brand that stands up for its values or for what’s right, I’d stay the course and deliver a message steeped in empathy, understanding and the unfathomable reality that is our country today."
The social media companies themselves are facing yet another high-stakes moment, forced again to deal with pressure to take action on President Trump’s tweets that his critics say are fueling the unrest. In one video he posted on Wednesday he called the election “stolen,” deploying similar misinformation that drew protesters to Washington.
YouTube was the first to remove the video, and Facebook followed. Meanwhile, Twitter labeled the video as misinformation and prevented people from liking or sharing the post. By early evening, though, Twitter fully removed it. Twitter also took down two other Trump tweets and then later locked his account for 12 hours. “Future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, will result in permanent suspension of the @realDonaldTrump account,” the company stated.
Facebook in a statement said: “This is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump's video. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to, rather than diminishes, the risk of ongoing violence.” It later stated that "we've assessed two policy violations against President Trump's Page which will result in a 24-hour feature block, meaning he will lose the ability to post on the platform during that time."
As for Wednesday’s events, it will likely spark more discussion inside marketing departments and ad agencies. Lauren Crampsie, president of Ogilvy New York, tweeted that she will be hosting an “open forum” for all employees.