Is your supporter really a frenemy?
This is a story that starts with young women on a beach in California, a sex toy and a YouTube video that goes viral. It continues with a substantial cheque for a small London-based human rights charity, and ends with a headache from a communications perspective.
What do you do when a supporter or advocate of your brand does not share your values? Or worse, has values that could damage your brand by association?
Orchid Project, which was set up five years ago to end female genital mutilation within a generation, received a cheque from a company called Simple Pickup, a company that rather unsavourily teaches men how to ‘pick up’ women.
Simple Pickup set up the Sybian sex toy on Venice Beach and invited passing girls to test it to raise awareness and funds for Orchid Project. The idea was that the company would donate $5 to the charity for every second that the women remained on the machine, plus an additional gift based on the number of ‘Likes’ the video received online. The video contained many links back and references to Orchid Project’s own website.
Back in London, the tiny Orchid team knew nothing about the insalubrious backstory to this donation. But when a few enquiries revealed its source, the team, under the guidance of the charity’s founder and former London First communications director Julia Lalla-Maharajh, took action.
‘We discussed our options from trying to engage with YouTube, telling the company we would report them, talking to lawyers, right through to doing nothing,’ she explains. ‘Having tried to contact them to talk about it with no response, we simply returned the money and didn’t give them any oxygen on social media at all. It slowly died away, but there was a bit of news coverage.’
At this point, Orchid also ran a blog post on its web site When fundraising goes wrong which it hoped would encourage supporters and fundraisers to talk to the charity about how to respectfully fundraise.
Lalla-Maharajh continues: ‘The average age of cutting is between five and eight years and so sexual imagery is not appropriate. We do not want to shy away from the long-term physical and mental health issues FGC causes, but rather to say that from our point of view, this is not the best way to draw attention to these.
‘We did try and contact the organisers to talk about our decision when returning the money, but have not had any response from them, nor any contact at any other point.’
The brave new world of social media can seem full of endless possibilities. Consumers and employees can become brand advocates quickly and easily, but it is important to remember that you no longer have control of your message once it is in the social media sphere.
Examples from the political sphere are relevant here. In the current debate over whether the UK will leave the European Union, the Brexit campaigners are strongly associated with UKIP leader Nigel Farage. But for many mainstream Brexit campaigners – from business and other political parties – Farage is toxic and not someone they wish to be associated with.
Matt Carter, founder of Message House, the research and campaigns company, says: ‘In this instance, this is a contest for who owns the message. Both [anti-EU Tories and UKIP] have an equal right to assert their claim, but there’s a judgment call over whose perspective will be more effective in persuading others.’
In the anti-Brexit camp, there are also divisions. Carter says: ‘The ‘in campaign’ presents itself as one unified team, but it is also a coalition of partners and can’t control all the messages. For instance, while the economic argument for staying in is important, it may not help if that is only espoused by big corporates and the big banks, such as Goldman Sachs.’
Carter suggests that before taking any action with a distasteful supporter, companies or charities need to be certain there’s a problem. Before acting and potentially damaging relationships or drawing attention to the issue, it is best to make sure that you are right to be concerned. Things may be seen quite differently from an outside perspective.
Carter, who has spent the last 15 years advising chief executives and political leaders on campaigns, says that if there is a problem, one of the simplest solutions is simply to drown out that message, to make sure that it isn’t a solitary voice.
Active support from lots of different sources will help to make the problem supporter less prominent and distinctive.‘You can also make a virtue of the fact that on this one thing, there is a consensus among people of very different views,’ Carter says.
Sometimes, as Orchid Project found, you have to distance yourself. ‘If the connection is damaging your reputation, you may need to put some distance between you and them, making clear publicly that you don’t share their view and didn’t solicit their support,’ Carter says.
Lance Concannon, marketing director of Sysomos, the social media analytics company, agrees that endorsement from people with conflicting views is a thorny problem for brands. Concannon says that if a brand has concerns about being associated with a person or organisation that conflicts with their values, the easiest thing to do is block the offending account.
Blocking – which stops a person from seeing your posts – can be a blunt tool, however, and there are ways for a determined person to get around an outright block.
Kemi Akindele, senior digital strategist at Hanover Communications, says that for this reason you need to be extremely selective when trying to garner supporters or influencers. ‘What have they tweeted in the last year? You need to know. What can you find out about them online? Can you be sure that they are not going to suddenly turn on you or that their actions aren’t going to damage you online?’ she says.
It is important to rank supporters by degrees of influence, such as noting those which are journalists and those that are activists. There are some people out there who troll or stalk brands and big companies, just because they want the attention.
Akindele says: ‘If someone tweets or comments about you, monitor it at first. You can create a crisis by leaping straight in. If other people start to notice those comments or endorsements then that is the time to step in.’
She advises trying to take the conversation offline first by offering an email address for them to contact. A journalist or activist often just wants to engage and would be happy to talk. If the ‘supporter’ starts to twist your message, or makes a fundamentally untrue statement, you need to have a prepared response ready, making clear what you do and do not believe in.
One of the more memorable instances of a ‘damaging’ endorser was the soap star Danniella Westbrook and her enthusiasm for Burberry and its check. The actress, best known for having lost part of her septum through cocaine addiction, was captured by a paparazzi photographer in 2004 with her toddler, both dressed head-to-toe in the brand’s expensive clothing, including matching nappy bag.
Burberry never commented on Westbrook’s choice of clothing or the growing popularity of their cheaper garments with a certain so-called ‘chav’ class, despite persistent questioning from the press. It was about this time that the brand also started to move sharply upmarket, with prices to match and its value on the stock market trebled between 2005 and the start of last year.
Catherine May, former director of corporate affairs at drinks giant SABMiller, now a leadership coach, says that any time you use a celebrity endorser, there are risks involved. But, when dealing with a celebrity, there is a contract that affords the brand some protection.
The danger with social media supporters is that their endorsement is freely given. May says that charities can find themselves vulnerable here as they lack the resources to do the due diligence on their supporters, hence they may find themselves accidently retweeting an endorsement from a supporter they may find disagreeable.
May also has experience of using employees as brand ambassadors and believes it is a calculated risk worth taking. ‘I’ve never understood businesses that say We don’t allow people to use social media. You want empowered individuals in your workplace and it shows the pride that people have in their company.’
Before allowing employees carte blanche to take to the web, however, it is a good idea to set some ground rules. In a big company, the guidelines might be drawn up in consultation with the marketing team, a lawyer, someone from the communications team and human resources.
There have been instances with big companies, including major utilities, airlines and companies that provide public services, where employees can be overzealous in their defence of their employer on social media.
‘You can get people being really aggressive and sticking their necks out. Obviously it’s important to set ground rules and talk about the sort of language you might use when talking about the company,’ May says.
Alex Pearmain, founder of social digital consultancy OneFifty, and a former head of social media at O2, says that when consumers endorse a brand, they are looking for something in return. That might be continuation of that good service or product but also recognition of their endorsement – after all, it was freely given.
‘For that reason I would never recommend ignoring an advocate on social media. Acknowledge it back to the person but do not make that acknowledgement public if you were not happy with their wider perspective,’ he says, adding that retweeting or sharing an endorsement implies approval of some of that advocate’s wider communications.
Pearmain says he was personally impressed by the number of big brands who were prepared to use social media to approve the introduction of gay marriage legislation in 2014. ‘Lots of mainstream brands were willing to endorse it, which is a huge sign of their confidence. Generally, more confident brands can accept a multiplicity of views,’ he says.
When it comes to working with young people, which many fashion, music, media and lifestyle brands want to do, there are more risks. ‘Let’s say that most will put something on social media at some point that they will regret, never mind you. So that makes it a huge risk to use them as endorsers,’ Pearmain says.
When working at O2 and Brands2Life, Pearmain said he devised strategies to contain those risks. He would not use young people in a live setting and he would take their endorsements and put them in a content format, rather than using their Twitter or Facebook handles, so as to protect their identities and shield them from trolls.
‘The idea was to protect both them and the brand,’ he says. He also points out that young people are often more open to feedback from a company and may change their posts if you engage with them.
‘For instance, if they have posted something that contains errors of fact, if you can put those right and help them improve their blog post they are often grateful,’ he says.
Working with vloggers – young people who make videos about their lives in which they extol the benefits of products (make-up, clothes, video games) – can also be a challenge.
The upside for the company or brand is that the vlogger is treated very much like traditional talent or celebrity endorsement and a contract will be put in place governing what they can say or do, so the brand has more protection.
The downside of vloggers, Pearmain believes, is that they are currently a small group of people in an overheated environment whose worth has been significantly overvalued.
‘This means they have a disproportionate negotiating hand and could do some damage. They barely think about their own reputations, never mind those of the brands’ they endorse,’ he says.
Recently, the Home Office pulled a video project with one 23-year old vlogger tyrannosauruslexxx after she put up a funny song she had written about David Cameron and pigs on her YouTube channel.
At least someone at the Home Office had thought through the potential Daily Mail headlines, even if the vlogger herself was unamused as was clear from her Twitter feed @lexcanroar, which has more than 39,000 followers.
She tweeted: After spending weeks working on this [the video project], they’ve thrown a tantrum because I dared to express that I dislike David Cameron. HILARIOUS.
Supporters who might damage a brand are not new in the world of communications. What is new is the speed and reach they might have, so that a lone voice can attract disproportionate attention.
And whether you are working for a big brand, the public sector or a small charity, the problem still remains. Time spent dealing with such problems is a distraction from your main business.