Black Lives Matter, Hashtag Activism and Why Walking Your Talk is Critical to Brands Today

Avoiding reputation management issues while discussing social change

In the midst of widespread demands for change across America and around the globe, many brands are shifting tones in their marketing efforts to share with powerful messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a welcome sight, but it’s also dangerous territory to engage in without doing some serious internal reflection first. Questions like, “Have we been socially responsible within our own organization?”“Do we plan to actually take action by enacting changes or contributing to a cause?“, and “Are there past negatives or skeletons in the closet that could alter how audiences react to what we share?”, need to be asked and answered with complete honesty if you’re going to avoid creating a reputation management issue.

Let’s be real  – it’s well known that the trend towards corporations acting in a more “socially responsible” way has come as much through hard-nosed analysis of gains and losses as  a will to do good, but that doesn’t mean companies are free of the obligation to both appear to and actually be following through on the expectations they create by joining in the conversation about social issues. The public is savvy to signs of empty hashtag activism, and you better believe there are several groups out there tracking what was said by major corporations in regard to BLM, and what was actually done. If you’re caught abusing related hashtags and social media events simply to boost sales, chances are high you will be called out, and your reputation will suffer.

For brands that do plan to truly engage in social change, there are rewards to be had, as demonstrated by the results from Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2020 Special Report: Brands and Racial Injustice in America. Some telling stats from the report include the finding that a whopping 82% of the 2,000+ consumers surveyed said brands making a stand against systemic racism would keep or gain their trust (four times the number who responded that speaking out would cause them to lose trust), and 60% of those surveyed stating how a brand responds over the next several weeks will influence whether they buy or boycott them in the future. The study also lays out hard numbers on what we discussed above, with 63% responding that they need to see concrete action from brands and companies that issue a statement in support of racial equality.

Where does this all tie in to crisis management? When you break it down, what we see at the core of nearly every crisis is a clash between expectations and reality, and it’s not much of a mental stretch to understand both how that applies to the current situation as a whole and to brands directly. A common pitfall for organizations of all kinds is to assume they know what the expectations of their core audiences are and how to properly measure them, all while utterly failing to get a proper handle on what exactly it is people want them to do or whether they’re actually doing it well. Check your moral compass, ensure you can keep promises before you make them, and enact measures to understand the expectations of key stakeholders, then act on them in a timely fashion. That’s the way to walk your talk and be the change you want to see as a brand today without running into trouble.

Erik Bernstein