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How brands respond to political crisis

As shocking images popped up on the internet of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan marching on the University of Virginia campus this weekend, one group was focused on a specific part of the photos: the tiki torches.

Tiki Brand products, the company that makes torches identical to those carried by the white supremacists, quickly denounced their use in the protests, writing on Facebook, “TIKI Brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville.”

TIKI Brand Products Facebook page

The company’s response was met with largely positive reactions on Twitter and Facebook. People were surprised but impressed with the company’s decision to post a statement.

Maureen Fernstrum and Marlaina Quintana, two members of the Tiki Brand team at the PR firm Cramer-Krasselt, said there was never any question that Tiki had to issue a response assuring consumers that it did not support white nationalists. (The White House was slower to make that statement.)

“In this instance, it’s not a hard call to oppose hate,” Quintana said. “We had to make a statement because people had already involved us. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not we wanted to get involved.”

Fernstrum said when the images first started to surface on social media, Tiki was being pulled into the conversation; the PR team immediately began monitoring social media to see how the public was reacting, and things were not looking good.

Quintana said they quickly convened a meeting with Tiki, drafted a statement denouncing the protesters, and posted it on Facebook by 4:49 pm, almost an hour before President Trump gave his remarks about the rally placing the blame “on many sides.”

“Letting something like this fester and not making a statement would have been far worse,” Fernstrum said.

The Trump administration offers plenty of moments for brands in crisis

Tiki Brand wasn’t the only brand dragged into the “Unite the Right” maelstrom. Some of the alt-right marchers in Charlottesville also carried signs with a version of the Detroit Red Wings NHL logo, slightly altered to include Nazi imagery.

Companies are finding themselves drawn into — or joining — the Trump administration’s fight more frequently. Skittles clarified the difference between candy and refugees after Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a far-right meme comparing people fleeing conflict to poisoned Skittles. New Balance rejected the idea that its products were the “official shoes of white people” after neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin praised the sneakers on the white supremacist website the Daily Stormer. And Dippin’ Dots wrote an open letter to Sean Spicer after the former White House press secretary’s old tweets doubting whether they were the “ice cream of the future” surfaced.

In the PR world, these moments of negative buzz are known as brand crises.

Tim Coombs, a professor at Texas A&M University and a crisis communications specialist, says that now more than ever, brands are having to think about where they stand on social and political issues because there’s a chance they’ll be pulled into situations like Charlottesville that they never anticipated having to take a stand on.

“If you go back, like, 15 or 20 years ago, companies wanted no part of social issues. Now they don't really have a choice,” he said.

According to Coombs, social media has played a massive role in how brands interact with their consumers and stakeholders. Years ago, when a product was portrayed in a less-than-positive light, companies could quietly discontinue an item, avoid putting out a press release, and wait for the hubbub to blow over. That’s what Nike did when members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves while wearing matching black-and-white Nike sneakers.

Now, Coombs says, branding bleeds into nearly every aspect of American life, from childhood breakfast cereals to life insurance policies, and companies can’t just remove themselves from political situations.

He says brands are having to look at what they value as a company and what their consumers value, because often, aggressive Twitter reactions can result in profit losses.

“If you look at social issues, you'll usually know what side your stakeholders are on,” Coombs says. “White nationalists are probably not the audience for tiki torches. Are you a white nationalist and won’t now buy a tiki torch? That’s fine; they don’t want to be a symbol of white nationalists. You have to know where you believe your audience stands.”

Coombs says CEOs can also really drive the company’s decisions. Early Monday, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned from President Donald Trump's council of manufacturers after the president refused to directly condemn the actions of the white supremacists in Charlottesville.

Regardless of who makes the decision — PR team or CEO — Coombs says these social and political risk assessment questions are going to continue to plague brands, and their best bet is to have a plan in place for how they will address it. “There’s a real concern among crisis managers: What if the president tweets about your company and it’s negative? Companies are definitely planning for this.”