The Whole World is Watching

It’s been a busy week in for communications professionals who work with brands online. Most notably, we’ve seen young people at the helm of the #NEVERAGAIN movement who are impacting the reputations of brands and organizations through social media. Their efforts are a direct effect of their surviving the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Where 17 people lost their lives.

The way it has been done is a testament to the effectiveness of the Agenda Setting Theory. Although this group of survivors is still in high school, their work has been a textbook case of public agenda setting. In this aspect of the theory, members of the public raise awareness of an issue and bring it to the forefront for others.

In one week’s time, a group of grief-stricken teenagers’ has primed the discussion in the media and policy makers. It’s prompted one network to sponsor a prime time town hall and state legislators in Florida to reverse course from long-held beliefs.

For those who like to explore brands and marketing, this week has given us much about which to think. And that’s exactly the point of the Agenda Setting Theory: it doesn’t tell us what to think, but rather, what to think about.

At one point in my career, I worked for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where I could see exhibits from history were brands were disrupted. In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we look at how activists can affect a brand’s reputation in their quest for change and to be heard.

Modern: Last Week Online

For those adept in social media it was easy to see conversations happen in real-time that affected brands. On Feb. 22, reality TV star Kylie Jenner tweeted her impressions of a redesign to the social media platform Snapchat. She didn’t mince words either:

That message was no only heard by her 25 million followers, but also the stock market. By the end of the day, Snapchat had lost about six percent of its value, or about $1.3 billion dollars.

Then, two days later a survivor of last week’s mass shooting started a ripple effect with this tweet.

Students, who in their grief one week prior, pledged to place a “badge of shame” for those not actively working to prevent tragedies such as the one that happened in their school. Their online activism spurred others to call out companies working with the National Riffle Association through corporate deals.

By Saturday night, more than 20 companies ended their relationships with the association. It doesn’t appear that the students’ momentum is slowing down either.

Direct Action Campaigns

The young people could probably find examples of activists affecting brands in their textbooks. This, too, happened during the Civil Rights Movement. It seems fitting that this post should pay homage to those foot soldiers fought for equality in the context of human rights during Black History Month.

Direct action campaigns were a mainstay during the Civil Rights Era where participants would call attention to injustice through non-violence demonstrations, protests, sit-ins and strikes. Those the journey to gain civil rights was not immediate, the efforts worked.

The arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For 381 days, black residents stayed off the city’s transit lines to protest the segregation of Montgomery buses. The story of how the boycott impacted the city’s coffers was prominently featured in the traveling Smithsonian exhibit titled 381 Days. This exhibit visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute during my tenure there.

The historic Sixteenth Baptist Church was just outside my office window when I worked at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The basement of the church was the place where four little girls died as the result of a racially motivated bombing in September 1963. But months before the bombing, civil rights leaders developed the idea for the Children’s Crusade, a non-violent protest by children.

The children’s non-violence was met with police officers, police dogs and water hours. Biography.com Author Kim Gilmore noted the effects to the brand of the City of Birmingham (Ala.): the whole world was watching.

Footage and photographs of the violent crackdown in Birmingham circulated throughout the nation and the world, causing an outcry. Businesses in downtown Birmingham were feeling the pressure. 

­Final Thoughts

Coordinated efforts for action can affect brands and business. This approach is not only effective, but time-tested. History is replete with examples of brands being motivated to change based on public outcry and reaction; they would be wise to take note.

Organizations put a lot of money into their brands—everything from research and development to production to advertising. While a key influencer starts to speak out against a brand and encourages others to do the same, brands notice.

As with Jenner, her followers began quickly replying how they disliked the Snapchat changes as well. From there it only snowballed. There is now a change.org online petition with more than one million signature asking Snapchat to abandon its redesign of the app.

The same thing goes for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students. Their clarion call to their followers prompted them to begin contacting organizations en masse to threaten to or cancel their own personal associations with the big names. When the complaints start to add up, so can the dollar signs.

In other words, money talks.

Paying attention to the conversation about an organization’s brand is the first step. It is important for communications professionals to monitor the conversation happening online about the organization. This environmental scanning can serve as a leading edge to discovering an issue on the horizon. These days, that’s part of the cost of doing business.

However, no one is going to give an organization credit for merely monitoring the brand online. What people do remember is the response the brand offers. Change isn’t easy, nor does it come overnight for activists. Their strength in affecting change is their persistence and ability to remain an influencer on topics of significance to their efforts.

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