A Marketer’s Guide to Managing Sudden Influencer Controversy

This week, we provide marketers with a step-by-step guide to navigating this complex world, and provide tools for coming out of such situations with minimal public backlash and their values intact. Save this one.  If you are a performance marketer at scale, you’re going to need it as we enter one of the most contentious election years in American History. 

From now until next year’s Presidential Election, advertisers on politically oriented programs should expect increasing scrutiny, spontaneously finding themselves stuck in the middle of controversy when on-air talent strikes a nerve and offends one group or another. Last week’s incident with Michael Knowles is a perfect case in point. 

Let’s say you were an advertiser on Michael Knowles podcast or on Fox News, who had him as a guest on The Story. Here’s how you’d find out about the gathering storm. You would receive an email—from a seemingly credible media outlet, blog, or group—seeking comment about your intention to continue your existing relationship with Knowles or Fox News. Often times, there’s a deadline for you to make a comment before your brand name is released on a list. That list will be used by an angry constituency that is poised to begin contacting you and others at your company—accusing you of supporting the beliefs of the offending party. 

Usually, the host’s words are taken somewhat out of context, but it doesn’t matter because the optics are bad and you wish they had made their point differently. You are tempted to respond to the email. However, real customers are rarely involved. Usually you will start to receive pressure from within your company. Questions start flying at you about why you would ever consider affiliating your brand with programs that so clearly do not represent the values your company represents. All the pressure to hit growth and CAC goals are out the window and now you must respond—or so it seems. All of this has happened in a matter of hours. It is at this precise moment that you must ignore your impulses to act and take a moment to pause amidst the immense amount of pressure and judgment surrounding you. 

Instead of following your emotions…

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Address Internal Stakeholders – In a timely and considered way, assure all stakeholders that you appreciate the gravity of the situation and your commitment to taking proper action. Affirm your commitment to company values and get buy-in from anxious team members who will be tempted to speak publicly before an appropriate response can be considered. 
  2. Say Nothing Publically – No matter how tempting it might be, don’t even acknowledge the email or call you receive from watchdog organizations or any media outlet that contacts you. Anything you say publicly can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion. This is true for both the third-parties that are pressuring you to make a statement or take an action, as well as the fans of the personality that caused the offense. You will feel like you owe them a response or statement and they know it. You do not. In fact, there is no long-term benefit in issuing a fast response. This is perceived but not real. Immediately following your awareness of the perceived offensive comment, do and say NOTHING. Speaking out will invite unwanted exposure and potential backlash. Just ask Keurig.
  3. Immediately “Pause” Your Media Investment – You have to watch, listen or read the content that caused the controversy in full. To do that, you need time. You have facts to gather and context to consider. To do this objectively, you will want to contact your media agency or the program or network immediately. Assure them that you are making no immediate decisions and issuing no public statements. Provide the media partner a minimum timetable for suspension of your campaign. 2-4 weeks is an appropriate amount of time for a proper evaluation.
  4. Gather Facts and Think Deeply – You have protected yourself from continued exposure and assured your stakeholders that you will properly evaluate. So now is the time for due diligence. Imagine if someone had walked into your office and attributed the soundbite in question to one of your team members or key vendors. You should handle this situation similarly. To do that, you need to hear from people representing both sides of the issue and see how it is affecting them. Listen deeply to how the words may have been hurtful to people on your team. If your customers have been impacted, hear their stories. Maybe the person who gave offense holds views that represent the unspoken values of other stakeholders who do not share those values publicly. Consider them too. Examine their channel’s impact on your business. Consider the cost of a permanent severance from the relationship and what the consequence would be to the people who work with you if you cut off this stream of revenue. Talk to others who have navigated these waters in the past and learn from their successes and failures. You must not simply react to the vocal minority, you need to consider every side of the issue.
  5. Layout All Your Options – It’s easy to forget that you have many options beyond stay or go. Once you’ve taken in all of the information, decide if the perceived offense deserves action. If so, your options include:
    1. Withdraw sponsorship until further notice: There is no rule that says you must close the door permanently. You can, however, decide that you don’t see an immediate path to the reinstatement of your campaign and take appropriate action. Again, quietly is best. 
    2. Terminate the relationship permanently: If you have weighed the offense and believe that your company mission calls you to take a side and have weighed the costs associated with permanent separation, notify the necessary stakeholders. Avoid emotional responses and stay matter of fact, leaning on the incongruity of your values with a continued relationship with the individual in question. This is the most extreme action and should only be considered in the most extreme circumstances. 
    3. Return Immediately: If you believe the controversy was taken out of context or  that the personality did nothing out of step with your company values, you can go back right away. Again, no public statement about this will benefit you. 
    4. Wait it out: If you don’t believe the offense was worthy of any action one way or another, let the news cycle pass—anywhere from 24 hours to one week—then continue as planned per your “Pause.” 
    5. Offer a Probationary Relationship: You have the right to not take any further action beyond your temporary withdrawal. However, if you do believe that the offense was a violation of your values or unnecessarily harmful but that they can be let off with a warning, then tell them so. Talk to the personality directly or at least alert the executive team that represents them that future instances of this nature may result in permanent separation. You can even request they consider some measure of goodwill or action to demonstrate a willingness to consider the feelings of those they have hurt, even if they disagree on a core issue. Typically these hurt feelings are the result of the way something was communicated, not necessarily the position held by either party.
  6. Decide – This may be less obvious than it seems. In almost every instance where separation occurs between the brand and talent in a relationship, it is done under compulsion from a third party. The reality is, this third party is not responsible for your goals or your mission as a brand. It would be a shame if you were to take an action that is too fast or too permanent all because you were bullied into doing so—yet this is often the path that brands choose. We all want to save face. But when you rush to judgment, you turn over your authority to less invested third parties who are operating with different motives than your own. This is your business, not theirs. Don’t let them tell you who you will do business with or how you go about finding new customers or sharing your values with the world. This is your decision, so take time and then decide for yourself.

One final thought. Most people will not follow the advice provided here and it will cost them a lot of money. But no amount of money is worth feeling like you’ve sold your soul and caved on your convictions. You have to make a choice that helps you sleep at night. There is a better path that no one ever considers—invest in the relationship with the offending talent with aggression, not passivity. The reason you found yourself in this predicament is that you leveraged the influence of an influencer. The most powerful asset in the world of marketing is tapping into the trust that flows between a media Influencer and their tribe. The moment you terminate that relationship, you have reduced your own influence with that tribe as well as their leader. 

But what if you could influence the Influencer? What if you had the courage to speak directly to the talent who caused the offense? Not with judgment, but bringing the reality of their comments to their doorstep for the purpose of reconciliation. If you are not too hasty, with a spirit of humility, you could share with them the human impact of the words they used. By taking this approach they will be far more likely to listen, learn, and change their behavior.

We do not elevate the public discourse when we run to another corner and point the finger. We do not advance our cause when we part ways. The world is not as black and white as people on both sides would make it seem. To behave as if that is the case is to reinforce that misconception and deepen the divide. But if you remain engaged in the relationship, despite your differences, you might be able to make a positive impact on Influencers and the world—just like your company’s mission statement likely proclaims.

Perhaps you could be the first to demonstrate cooperation to extend the mission and values that you hold dear, even when that means working with people who think differently or who do not always say things the right way. Which of us has not said something we regret and then defended something indefensible under the heated lamp of another’s judgment? But when confronted by a friend—seeking to restore, not destroy—we all are able to soften. I can think of no more powerful way to benefit your company or the growing divide in this country than to address these problems directly while keeping the relationship intact. As a marketer, you steward tremendous influence over the nature of discourse in this country but only through your active, NOT reactive, involvement.

The question is…Do you have the courage to confront without judgment? Might they respect you because you were not like the others? Can you have a disagreement while maintaining respect?

We have enough polarization in this country. There is enough judgment on both sides. You have the power to proactively drive positive change and use these moments of controversy to unite people and expand the influence of your values—if you would only take a different approach.

Go forth and spend your influence wisely. 

For additional resources on this topic, please see The Influencer’s previous articles addressing different aspects of this topic, including, A HOUSE DIVIDED WILL NOT BRAND and DON’T BECOME A VICTIM OF THE “OTHER” TRADE WAR

Our position on doing our part to heal the divide in this country through our approach to marketing has also garnered some media attention, including, THE WILKOW MAJORITY on SiriusXM, Business Radio by The Wharton School and Closer Look with Rose Scott on NPR.

3 thoughts on “A Marketer’s Guide to Managing Sudden Influencer Controversy

  1. Sage advice Dan Granger. I like how you gave us sound, tactical recommendations and then said, “One final thought……no amount of money is worth feeling like you’ve sold your soul and caved on your convictions.”

    2020 is going to be a wild year in the media business.

  2. Thoughtful insights. “The most powerful asset in the world of marketing is tapping into the trust that flows between a media Influencer and their tribe. The moment you terminate that relationship, you have reduced your own influence with that tribe as well as their leader. “

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