American flag on a fence
Marketing Content Strategy

Do Politics Have a Place in Brand Publishing?

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It’s Monday morning, just before eight, and a content marketing director steps out of her car. She knows it’s going to be a bit of a long day in her brand newsroom. Big political news has just broken the night before, and she’s certain to face plenty of noise on social media and some impulsive commentary from her team.

Today, the reality is a bit more hectic than she had anticipated.

She has 15—no wait, 20 unsolicited pitches from freelancers who want to tackle the issue on behalf of her brand. Buried deep in her inbox, under a slew of social notifications, is a note from the C-suite that company leadership is seeking thoughts from their managers as to whether or not to respond. She passes the break room to find her senior editor trapped in a conversation with Bill from accounting, who has decided today is the day he’s going to tell the world about his idea for a third party that’s based on the economic principals of an agrarian barter system.

Something has to give, and our content director is now at the heart of it. But this places her at a difficult crossroads: should her brand engage politically or keep distant from the news of the day?

Business, Politics, and Other Things Not Discussed over Dinner

While hot political climates aren’t a new phenomenon, the manner in which communication has developed in just the past ten years has caused enormous shifts in how companies have to respond to it. Never before have audiences had such easy access to express their views to a brand in a public way. Never before have members of an audience—with no other connection to each other beyond a brand or product—had so much access to discourse (and often, argument) over the internet. The result is that companies are being pressured ever more frequently to take part in political discourse.

It’s a dangerous proposition for companies, with results that are often difficult to predict. What’s more, the likelihood that your brand will be able to put out any kind of position or statement that pleases everyone is unlikely. This is tenuous, fine-detail work that many companies have, understandably, avoided in the past. But when avoidance is no longer possible, there are some principles that can help keep your brand safe and ready to respond.

A quick disclaimer before we dive into the tactics. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for political brand publishing—it’s one of the many reasons that marketers love their PR teams. There are also a large number of underlying philosophies, ideals, and mechanisms that impact how different companies engage with this sort of discourse. For the purposes of this article, here are three underlying principles we’ll be working with:

  1. Companies are economic agents. At the end of the day, their goal is to prosper financially, support their workforce, and expand in their market. We also aim to do this in a manner that is ethical and respects (rather than abuses) our audience. These tactics won’t apply for brands whose express aims aren’t economic (i.e. a nonprofit founded on an inherently political mission).
  2. I’m talking about marketing; you talk about politics. This isn’t a playbook for any particular side or cause in the political arena. These are just tools, and how you use them is up to your brand.
  3. I’m an American writer with experience in American markets. I don’t have a political science degree or a vast knowledge of international politics and business. For readers who operate internationally, you’ll need to consider critically whether these tactics actually apply within your particular political conversation.

Let’s get political.

Sparkler and American flag

Image attribution: Stephanie McCabe

Active and Reactive Political Discourse

There are three primary positions a company can take when it comes to responding to politics. The first is passive and covers the lion’s share of brands in the market today. You just simply don’t acknowledge or respond to anything political. You take no position. Just let this issue pass you by and keep conducting business as usual.

It’s a tried and true method that involves the least amount of risk, but in some scenarios, it isn’t an option. When something comes down the political pipeline that directly affects your audience or relates to how your brand interacts with your audience, passivity can be interpreted as a lack of care or investment. This forces your brand into a different position.

The other two options for response are to be active or reactive. An active stance puts your brand out in front of the issue in the hopes of molding public opinion before it manifests on its own. It’s a riskier position to take, but when successful it puts your brand in a powerful position to support your audience and build strong credibility.

We saw a number of examples of this following the most recent election, with many brands putting out statements to their audience with their thoughts on results. For large companies with stock interests, it’s an expected PR move to let shareholders know what footing they stand on. But even smaller brands with less connection to the political system have weighed in—take for instance Food 52’s personal note to their readers. They even had to make a follow-up in response to some backlash from portions of their community, displaying the careful risk-reward nature of active positions.

From a content publishing perspective, active content will seek to break issues to an audience early, provide actionable perspective or insight, and take a position that followers can easily articulate or latch onto. This is a bid to establish swift trust in uncertain times, demanding much from content creators in terms positioning and providing solid, informative experiences. Due to the speedy nature of this position as well, it often means your team is initially constrained to more quickly produced formats like blogs and graphics, which might present a concern for brands that typically rely heavily on video content.

Reactive positions are slightly more conservative and allow your brand some time to analyze how your audience is reacting before making a statement. While you’re less likely to publish material that damages your brand’s position, you open up the field for competition to respond more quickly and actively, pulling confidence away from your brand. This is a better position for brands that want to make informed decisions, produce small quantities of high production value content, or for political situations that are actively developing as your content team is creating.

So which position is right for your brand? The answer leads us to principle one for political brand publishing:

  • Principle 1: Political stance should never be a one-person decision. Where available, PR teams should determine whether you take an active or reactive stance. In the absence of a PR team, you leadership team should be directly involved and aware of the position your content team plans to take. Striking a position that your company as a whole later changes or undermines is the fastest way to destroy credibility with your audience.

People running and biking with American flag

Image attribution: Frank McKenna

Minding the Authenticity Gap

So your team has decided on a stance and is ready to push forward with some politically oriented content. But what do you write?

This is where your content team is going to be given room to shine. You know your audience better than anyone, and you should have a sense for what is currently on their minds. Your goal then, as a content creator, should be to show how your brand shares in that same political experience: you celebrate the same wins, you feel the same fears, and you want to help where you can.

An important contention will come into play here. Your brand is taking part in politics but isn’t a primarily political entity. Your goal isn’t to solve a political issue (though if you can along the way, kudos); your goal is to further support your audience during an important time in their lives in the hopes of earning credibility and securing your relationship. There’s an unspoken sense where this is understood between consumer and company. The difference is, however, where breaking authenticity in a normal content scenario might just result in weak content, breaking authenticity in political content can come across as exploitative.

  • Principle 2: At all costs, political content must avoid “apparent capitalization.” The moment your audience feels you’re using a situation to exploit them for economical means, you lose all credibility that could possibly be gained from a political scenario. This forces your brand into passivity and can have long-reaching effects on your audience relationship.

Marketers have been treated to two excellent case studies in apparent capitalization this political season, courtesy of Pepsi and Heineken.

Pepsi recently released—and then quickly pulled—an ad that sought to present their cola as a force for unity amidst a time of political turmoil. The response was immediate and intense, resulting in a tirade of angry social interactions, coverage from numerous marketing and ad industry outlets, and an eventual SNL skit.

Terms like “tone-deaf” and “exploitative” just underlined the essential error of Pepsi’s ad: they did no work to actually align their brand with the struggles of their target audience, and used a format and story that was clearly commercial in nature. This isn’t what audiences are looking for in times of uncertainty, and it has resulted in brand harm for Pepsi.

In a counter-position to Pepsi’s short ad, Heineken released a longer form digital video that also sought to explore unity through beverages. By removing itself from the ad format, featuring real people that viewers come to know better over time, and providing a “solution” (in this case, simply talking to people) that audience members can latch onto, the video has succeeded where Pepsi faltered.

The viewers aren’t fools—we know that Heineken is still trying to sell us beer as we watch their video. But by providing an experience that’s interesting even without the inclusion of their product, Heineken is able to engage effectively, take a position, and earn credibility (as well as more than twelve million views at the time of this article’s writing).

Reliance, Cadence, and Quiet

Your content team is now chugging along, producing some relevant material and avoiding some common traps that brands fall into when they interact politically. This leads to the last principle of political content marketing.

  • Principle 3: Political content is an opportunistic measure. It gives your brand a unique opportunity to speak into spaces that you might not otherwise focus on, but it can’t become the focus of your brand. Remain timely, be supportive, and then allow the politics to ebb and flow out of your normal content cycle.

Political discourse at the brand level is always risky, which means the longer you stay in it, the more likely you are to fumble and lose much (if not all) of the credibility you have earned by being present in the space. Political material should tie back to the essential experiences that engaged your audience in the first place and then eventually lead your audience back into enjoying those experiences in and of themselves.

At the end of the day, your brand isn’t a political entity. It exists to support your company but also to provide unique experiences for your audience they can’t find anywhere else. Politics will always remain anchored to a reality your audience always lives with. But when your brand is able to use content to build trust and alleviate concerns caused by politics, it allows you the room necessary to bring your audience back into the storytelling that truly defines your relationship.

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Featured image attribution: Gabby Orcutt

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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