Social Strategy in a Hyper-Political, Emotionally Charged Time

November 12, 2020

By Janel Cooper, Senior Director, Account Management                                 [Header image credit: Canva]

The ongoing pandemic has people continuing to turn to their social media channels to replace the IRL activities, connections and emotional outlets that we have lost, making it ground zero for voicing big, hot feelings about said pandemic and all the other stressors that define 2020. In this environment, it is to be expected that no statement of fact or opinion will be spared from debate, judgment or critique by the millions of users lingering online, day and night, watching and waiting with a megaphone should someone say something questionable. Every word, visual, punctuation mark, and emoji is worthy of analysis when communicated by a brand. After all, relevant brands stand for so much more than their product. They hold the power to express values and rally communities.

In light of this, evolving a brand’s identity in today’s social media landscape takes reinforced strategy. The second a post hits the internet, someone has reacted and possibly even shared it with their followers. It is crucially important to understand the intended brand communication and desired perception to clearly and effectively convey the message to be taken away. Brand content will always be subject to interpretation, sometimes to a frustrating degree. Since the nature of the medium almost guarantees feedback from varied perspectives, the goal shouldn’t be to exert greater control over the conversation or to minimize feedback. It should be to “know thyself” and stay true to the brand and its role in culture.

Failure to define what your brand stands for ensures that others will define it for you, possibly in ways that contradict your intentions. A brand must develop a communication strategy that stays true to the brand essence, but is flexible enough to evolve with the times.

Here are some best practices we’ve developed with our social media clients over this tumultuous year.

Pro Tip 1: Determine what the brand stands for and do not waver. 

It takes A LOT of research and analysis to define and articulate a brand’s unique DNA. Take the essential steps to arrive at a sound strategy, so you’ll have the receipts to back your ideas up and put a communication plan in motion. However, as thoughtful as you may be, some will try to pressure the brand into defending its initiatives and values. If you’ve successfully completed the heavy lifting of research and focus groups, the communicated messaging will ring true with the target audience. They, in turn, will have the brand’s back, discouraging cynics from taking things too far out of the intended context.

Pro-Tip 2: Stay relevant and intentional in all moments. 

A brand must be grounded in a solid foundation of principles. While it’s imperative to remain true to that core identity, it’s equally important to avoid coming off as oblivious to what’s happening in the world. Brands can no longer sit out of important conversations without risking their reputations. These days, staying silent on social justice issues speaks volumes. Consumers are watching for what their favorite brands have to say on these transformative issues, and more importantly, how they will act upon them. You cannot ignore the day’s headlines and dispatch your regularly scheduled posts during turbulent moments without the audience calling you out, or worse, creating a narrative for you. Decide carefully how to evolve your brand’s subject matter in a way that participates in the dialogue at hand, so your audience sees the brand as willing to take a stand on what is fair and just for the sake of humanity.

Pro Tip 3: Targeting prospect audience while avoiding alienating the current audience. 

There is no way to appease every person who follows your brand. And as noted, a brand cannot hide from the hard conversations happening in the world. At a minimum, you should understand your brand’s primary audience and how they will internalize and react to the content you put out. However, even within that faithful following, not all will agree with your messaging. Layering a new audience segment into the mix will add some complexity to your planned verbiage, but does not make communication impossible. Social justice conversations will always perturb someone. Objectors will admonish and publicly threaten abandonment of the brand, and some may even follow through. But saying and doing what your organization believes to be ethical should far outweigh the fear of angering and distancing those who resist your values. You will likely gain more followers than you lose by standing up for decisions and changes that are equitable and fair for all. And in the end, the brand will attract a stronger community that knows and shares its belief system, creating greater resonance for the brand.

Pro Tip 4: Don’t respond to trolls.

It’s natural to want to fight back when trolls, bots, and cyberbullies attack something you’ve worked hard on. Just don’t. Stay focused on nurturing the community you want. There’s usually a hero or two in the online crowd that will come to the brand’s defense and respond for you.

Pro Tip 5: Expect the unexpected.

Lies can quickly become truths as all it takes is one person to light the match and spark a rumor. You need to respond to misinformation quickly, publicly, and transparently—and sometimes redundantly—to ensure your social audience has direct visibility to the brand’s official response. Be willing to take on a humble tone and ensure the message being put forth feels authentic and human. You do not want to sound like an uncaring bot. You won’t always have well-thought-out answers at the ready when an unexpected situation occurs. Still, you can immediately let the audience know you are looking into the matter and will respond once you have adequate details to address the situation. And remember, always, always, always follow through on the promise of a response, as followers are keeping watch.

Pro Tip 6: Be patient.

Current thoughts and beliefs did not take shape overnight. Brands, like people, are usually slow to change. Change takes vision, cohesion, and perseverance. Take time to educate yourself on the issues your followers face today and know what actions can be taken to impact the short-term versus the long-term. Then, work with your team on priorities and goals that will inspire action and incite your followers to want to have a voice and play a role in the messaging. Slowly but surely, you will look in the rear-view mirror and see the evolution you helped create. 

As 2020 has relentlessly shown, there is no map key to reveal what to say and do for every situation on social media. Quite often, it’s the Wild, Wild West, and you have to brave the unknown to create the future, while trying to make decisions you feel are best in representing your brand at the moment. As for what the rest of this year holds, let’s hope 2020 doesn’t stay so on-brand.

Janel Cooper is a senior account director in TMA’s Dallas office.