Companies, think before you tweet

Carusone defends anti-Hannity ad boycott
Carusone defends anti-Hannity ad boycott

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Carusone defends anti-Hannity ad boycott 05:32

Story highlights

  • Kara Alaimo: Group urges advertisers to boycott Hannity show, but firms should wait until they are sure of their stance
  • She says Kuerig, others erred recently when they tweeted they were pulling ads, then deleted tweets

Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of "Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication." She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Many companies are facing a tricky decision this week: whether to continue advertising on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News amid calls to boycott the program.

Kara S. Alaimo
The group Media Matters for America has created a petition asking advertisers to pull support for Hannity, who they say has been "exposed as a full-blown propagandist who conspires with the Trump administration to spread fabricated stories, smear detractors, and undercut the rule of law." (Fox News responded to the petition, defending its host.)
On Sunday, Media Matters' president, Angelo Carusone, told CNN's Brian Stelter that 30 companies that were previously advertising on the show have agreed to stop -- a claim CNN has not independently confirmed.
    Whichever companies decide to join in should, of course, follow their principles, but (Public Relations 101, here) advertisers should know how far they're really prepared to go before announcing it to consumers and the world, lest they run into the PR nightmare several companies faced last week when they made a feint at pulling ads from Hannity's show.
    In short, a consumer -- that's you and me -- can only stick with a company or be impressed by its principled stance when we know it means it.
    Advertisers need to consider their own brand values. They should explain to the public the circumstances under which they'd ever pull ads from broadcasters, so it's clear they're making thoughtful decisions. And a good place to do this is, first, on their websites, not Twitter -- so they have more than 140 to 280 characters to explain.
    Then they can link from Twitter to full explanations.
    Above all, they should learn from companies like Keurig and Volvo, who last week -- with itchy Twitter fingers -- showed how not to handle such a situation. In that instance, they were responding to the way Hannity was covering the allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexually assaulting or harassing young women.
    Hannity: Moore has 24 hours to explain himself
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    Hannity: Moore has 24 hours to explain himself 01:23
    On November 11, someone noted on Twitter that Keurig was sponsoring Hannity's show. Keurig responded by tweeting, "We worked with our media partner and FOX news to stop our ad from airing during the Sean Hannity Show." Later, Keurig's chief executive, Bob Gamgort, sent an email to staff saying he regretted the tweet. "The decision to communicate our short-term media actions on Twitter was done outside of company protocols," he said.
    Other companies decided to pretend they hadn't tweeted in the first place. On November 13, Volvo tweeted, "We have spoken with our media agency and have advised them to cease advertising on the show." Then, the company deleted the tweet.
    Realtor.com tweeted, "We are not currently, and will not be running TV ads on Hannity" -- and then deleted its tweet, too.
    Here's a news flash, companies: "Untweeting" is not a strategy. It's essential to be prepared with responses to eminently foreseeable issues like this. And making value statements and then taking them back is the worst thing companies can do to their reputations, because it suggests they don't know what they're about.
    Part of the problem is likely that these companies were trying to respond to the issue on social media quickly. In his just-published book, "The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis," Helio Fred Garcia, president of Logos Consulting Group, says companies must respond to problems on social media during the "golden hour" in which they emerge.
    The term is borrowed from emergency medicine. Doctors know that, when someone is having a heart attack, every minute counts. If you get the person to the hospital within an hour, they're much more likely to survive than if you wait longer. Similarly, Garcia says, if companies respond to an issue on social media within that golden time frame, their reputations are much more likely to survive. That's because if a company is among the first to respond, it gets to frame the situation itself, rather than allowing others to interpret its actions and motives.
    Hannity targeted after pushing conspiracy theory
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    Hannity targeted after pushing conspiracy theory 05:37
    These days, every organization should be anticipating issues that could arise on social media. They should craft and come to internal consensus on their responses in advance, so that, if the problem strikes, they're ready to respond within the golden time frame.
    In the case of the Hannity controversy, for example, it was entirely predictable that any of these brands could have come under fire for supporting the controversial show. The New York Times reported in June that advertisers were getting a lot more questions about whether they agree with the content of productions they fund. So, these companies should have been ready.
    Every organization should be articulating its core principles and policies on issues like when they'd pull ad dollars in the face of outrageous decisions by a broadcaster. Then, when they get questions, they can point to their earlier statements and explain how they're applying them.
    But now, at least, companies responding to calls to boycott Hannity should think carefully about their broader advertising policies, which should be grounded in their corporate values, before they tweet. Then they should explain how they're applying them -- and not try to take their words back.