There ought to be a clear difference between “caving in to criticism” and “making a smart decision.” But that distinction sometimes gets blurred when organisations need to respond to potentially damaging issues.
Take the recent case when animal activists PETA complained about the packaging for Barnum’s Animal Crackers, which for more than 100 years has shown beasts behind bars on a circus train. Cookie-maker Nabisco has now redesigned the box to show the animals free in the wild.
It seemed like a win-win, but of course the Twittersphere had to have its say. Mashable headlined that the internet was divided on the issue, and highlighted tweets helpfully pointing out that the crackers are not actually animals, or suggesting that PETA won’t be satisfied until the crackers are made in the shape of tofu cubes. Or rather more rationally, arguing that PETA should maybe focus its efforts on mistreatment of real animals rather than wasting resources “stiff-arming Nabisco”.
Companies today are increasingly coming come under social media pressure. Think of Kellogg’s which agreed to redesign its Corn Pops cereal box artwork after a single customer complained that of all the corn pop cartoon characters illustrated in a shopping mall, the only one with a brown face was dressed as a janitor.
How about Australian clothing brand Peter Alexander who recently recalled a children’s pyjama top with the slogan “Boys will be boys” after social media claims of sexism. Or the Dr Seuss Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, who withdrew a mural featuring illustrations from the author’s first children’s book, originally published in 1937, because of complaints it showed a “jarring racial stereotype” of a Chinese man.
Such responses to criticism bring us neatly to the controversial Nike advert which is currently burning up the internet and driving angry critics to set fire to their branded sneakers. The ad featured footballer Colin Kaepernick, blacklisted after kneeling during the national anthem to protest treatment of African Americans. The result was immediate and predictable and highly political, with calls for a boycott and Donald Trump tweeting out venom.
The issue at stake here is obviously much greater than a cereal box design, but the principal remains the same. When do you stand firm in the face of criticism – even from the President of the United States – and when do you concede. Within 24 hours Nike reportedly received more than $43 million worth of media exposure, the vast majority neutral to positive, yet its shares fell about $5 billion (compared with the company value of about $130 billion). However, sales then spiked and the share price soon began to recover, so the chances of Nike conceding seem slim. As Katherine Miller commented in Buzzfeed: “We intuitively know that Nike never, ever, ever backs down. They are so corporate and so vast that every decision they make seems final.”
Several decades ago I attended an issue management conference in San Francisco where a representative of McDonald’s came under fire from delegates over the company backing down on a controversial environmental issue. His response: “We are in the hamburger business, not the issue business.”
While McDonald’s has come a very long way since then, some companies still cling to this illusion. The reality is that every organisation is potentially in the issue business. You generally don’t get to choose what issues will cause you grief. But you do get to choose whether to stand firm.