Brands with a clear corporate purpose will be in a far stronger position to deal with a potential backlash, because any decisions they make will be guided by those principles.
At least this was the case for Pinterest, according to its CMO Andréa Mallard, after it got caught up in the abortion debate last week when it banned anti-abortion group Live Action from the site for spreading “harmful misinformation” and conspiracy theories.
Live Action fought back, posting a screen shot of the letter it received from Pinterest on Twitter, accusing the company of censorship, while others took issue with the fact Pinterest had taken a political stance.
“Great brands need to have a perspective and be unequivocal about taking a stand,” Mallard said, talking on a panel at Wake Up With The Economist at Cannes Lions 2019.
She said brands shouldn’t necessarily avoid live debates like this but they must ensure they can back up any actions they take, which comes back to having a clear perspective on things. Pinterest could justify banning the activist group from its site because it found some of what it was posting to be untrue and potentially dangerous.
“I’m not sure you necessarily want to avoid these issues,” she added. “Any purpose-led brand needs to be very true to what their purpose is in the world and base any decisions on that purpose – that’s what we’re trying to do.
“There is plenty of content on Pinterest that you might call pro-life that we deem to be safe, and that is completely within the bounds of our policy and that can remain there. Our perspective is about [the spread of] misinformation.”
Organisations that have very strong values and know who they are will be able to handle issues when they come up.
John Rudiazky, EY
Having a guiding principle like this also enables the brand to justify its actions internally.
“We absolutely don’t have a particular bias on the topic [as a company]. We have a very diverse workforce who come down on both sides of the debate – we have people who disagree on the topic and we respect and understand that,” she explained.
“Our perspective is about misinformation, and [regardless of which side of the debate you fall on] you have a right to have something to say, that’s very central to who we are as a company.”
Responding with respect
Last year, Marriott faced a challenging time of its own when China shut down its websites for a week after the firm listed Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan and Macau as countries in an online survey.
“It was not our intention to insult anyone, it was a typo basically,” explained Karin Timpone, Marriott International’s global marketing officer, who was talking on the same panel. “It did become a topic of news though and while nobody intended it, it was a lesson in how to be sensitive.”
She said the situation was helped by the fact Marriott handled it in a very respectful way, taking “ownership and responsibility for the situation”, as well as communicating the fact it was adding an extra layer of review to make sure nothing similar could happen again.
“The conversation that happened around the world afterwards was really interesting because everyone has different perspectives. We were being sensitive to a very specific idea in one country and culture, and other countries had a point of view on that. We shouldn’t lose our heads here because not everyone is going to be the same thing. It’s about being reasonable about our intention; everyone knows our company is a good company and I think in some ways that’s what made us such an interesting topic,” she said.
Given the speed at which a negative story can spread across the world thanks to digital and social media, Timpone said brands have got to keep on top of conversations – both at a global and local level.
“We’re very conscious of the fact we live in a very connected global world and things travel around social media without the same completeness that you and I see in longer-form content, so we have to be mindful of how fast things move via social. We have to be on top of it.”
To help it do this, Marriott has news teams around the world constantly monitoring conversation on social so it can pick things up quickly and not “further exacerbate an issue” by seemingly ignoring it or not being part of the conversation. “No one is perfect but It helps us stay on track,” she added.
Given brands will be part of the conversation whether they like it or not, EY’s global brand and marketing leader John Rudiazky said brands today have got to have a very strong corporate narrative. “It was true in the past and it’s never been more true now,” he said.
“You can’t avoid being talked about and therefore as a brand it comes back to having a very strong core purpose and very strong values. Organisations that have very strong values and know who they are will be able to handle issues when they come up.”
He recalled a meeting while working with former Prime Minister Tony Blair in a previous role.
“[He] said a good politician always has to know where they stand. You will always get views from the left or the right; it doesn’t matter where you sit on the spectrum, you have to have a clear point of view on the issue – and I think that’s a good metaphor for brands. Knowing where you sit in the world will help you handle the inevitable issues that will arise.”