Events of the past few weeks suggest that companies and public sector organisations need to think twice, or preferably three times, before getting involved in social media debates which have become increasingly rancorous. Otherwise they risk becoming the victims of a reputation-damaging social media pile-on which can go viral. A new Cambridge University study confirms what most of us had previously suspected, that negative social media posts, deriding or attacking political opponents’ points of view, have far more traction than those supporting a particular position. Big organisations are therefore in danger of being caught in the crossfire – trying to look progressive, ‘doing the right thing’ on the one hand, but risking a misstep that can provoke intense public criticism and alienate a large chunk of their customer base on the other. If this happens they need to have some well media-trained spokespeople, ready to answer tricky journalist questions.
A good example is London’s Royal Academy, which suffered considerable reputational damage after it made a hasty apology for carrying the work of an artist in its shop who had offended the powerful trans lobby. It withdrew the artist’s work after an angry twitter campaign by a small number of individuals, but this caused an outcry – as somebody pointed out, ‘if we start cancelling artists for causing offence, the walls of galleries will soon be bare’. The RA had to reverse its position, and issue a humiliating apology – for its earlier apology.
Similarly, a number of companies withdrew ads from the fledgling GB News channel for fear of being associated with something that social media critics predicted would be a UK copy of Fox News, but this only encouraged those taking an opposing view to furiously attack these businesses, calling for them to be boycotted for not standing up for free speech and media plurality.
Companies are right to recognise the need to demonstrate that they are making a positive contribution to wider society and have a broader social role. But they might be wise to focus on themes and campaigns that are genuinely likely to have broad popular support (think Marcus Rashford and school dinners, or anti-racism in football) rather than allowing their social media teams to jump on bandwagons which may appear to have plenty of traction on twitter for a few days, but do not resonate more widely. Otherwise they will do more harm to themselves than good.
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