Contending With Controversy: A PR Parable
Some controversies are bigger than others, but it’s reasonable to expect that at a certain point in their history, most brands may experience what we might call their “Colin Kaepernick moment.”
This might loosely be defined as a campaign, message or incident where an organization draws the kind of attention that polarizes some segments of its target audience, which leads to major consequences. Those consequences can be good or bad — it all depends on the data you have access to, and how you used it in your communications strategy.
As we noted in a previous post, Nike’s use of the NFL star in a major ad campaign resulted in PR results far beyond what most brands achieve with their media spend. Applying the lessons learned from that particular campaign, however, may seem challenging to brands that aren’t as large as Nike, or operate in an entirely different sector.
How can a company strike the ideal balance between risk and reward in how they develop their PR strategy and execute in a way that maximizes their return on investment (ROI)? To answer that question, we’re going to take a fictitious example of a brand and walk through a scenario that illustrates how a data-driven approach using modern comms tools can make all the difference.
Meet Pivot Denim
Based in San Francisco, Pivot Denim was early to capitalize on a fashion trend with major growth potential: the evolution of business apparel from formal suiting to startup-style casual wear. Made from materials that are thoughtfully sourced for sustainability and minimal environmental impact, its jeans are deliberately targeted at those in the tech sector — as well as those who share their outlook and sensibilities.
In its most recent Fall collection, for example, Pivot Denim marketed a brand-new line of jeans for women — an expansion of its former all-menswear line — with a theme about the growing number of women entrepreneurs. With taglines like, “What innovators wear,” and “There’s a founder in all of us,” Pivot Denim’s billboards, print and digital ads were both eye-catching and provocative — until the backlash happened.
It started with a blog post entitled, ‘Dear Pivot Denim: You Don’t Have to be Skinny to be Innovative,” a female businesswoman recounted her experience of shopping at one of the mid-size retailer’s stores in her local shopping mall. While she admired the color of the Pivot Denim wash and found its price point reasonable, everything changed once she got in a dressing room:
The waist was way too high, and the largest size I tried on felt like I was being choked by a boa constrictor. I realize the people who inspired Pivot Denim are often being “squeezed for cash” when they’re growing their startups, but this is ridiculous!
It didn’t take long for others to weigh in with similar reactions, and to share them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social channels. Some people even created parodies of the Pivot Denim ads to reflect the reality of plus-sized people who have achieved success in the startup world, while a major podcast devoted an entire episode to the subject “Does Silicon Valley Have Body Image Issues?”
Pivot Denim’s Data-Driven Response
For some brands, this kind of PR nightmare would be crippling, to say the least. Fortunately, however, Pivot Denim was already using technology that gave it considerable opportunities to not only recover but to turn the story around. Doing so involved three major phases:
1. Observe and Assess: Media monitoring allowed Pivot Denim to look at how PR materials that complemented its initial paid media spend were playing out in the market. This included earned coverage given to the Fall 2018 collection by fashion industry outlets and general business press, as well as influencers like bloggers and social media creators. The company was able to quickly build a holistic picture of everything being said about its jeans — the good as well as the bad.
Rather than guess what that coverage meant, its comms tools were able to offer detailed data on reach as well as “smart engagement” metrics, such as the size of the audience within its most desired demographics and segments. Pivot Denim was even able to use a unique identifier to track online activity to conversion — in other words, the company could see who wound up on its e-commerce store to buy a pair of jeans as a result of the campaign.
2. Act and Amplify: Pivot Denim already maintains a popular blog that not only talks about its jeans but how the “startup mentality” extends beyond Silicon Valley and influences successful people around the world. It used that owned media platform to publish a post from its founder that acknowledged the negative feedback, discussed the thinking that had gone into its jeans’ sizing and fit, and how it would introduce more variety and options with a speed that is virtually unheard of in other apparel companies. It spread this post organically through its social channels but amplified it through paid media to boost engagement with the post.
3. Iterate and Optimize: Pivot Denim didn’t stop there. Using the same comms data that showed the good and bad PR it had generated, it worked with its programmatic partner to retarget consumers in the most appropriate way. People who complained about the jeans, for instance, were first to receive a 15 percent off discount code to try out the new sizes made available after the backlash. Those who already liked the jeans, meanwhile, were retargeted with positive reviews that came out later, which in turn led to even more positive word of mouth among the company’s biggest fans.
Conclusion: Best Practices For Modern Communicators
Pivot Denim may not exist, but the parable above shows how technology has democratized the ability for companies with only a fraction of a major brand’s advertising or PR budget to reinforce the right messages and change conversations that may go in an undesirable direction.
Some of the key takeaways here include:
- “Test, target, distribute, measure” — you can’t lose if you gather the right data and repeat these steps before, during and after a campaign.
- Paid/Earned/Owned is a three-legged stool to step up your agility — by using advanced analytics, amplification and retargeting can ensure your message is getting in front of the ideal audiences and their influencers.
- Focus on true measurement — Results need to be assessed across every channel, on every type of media and always with a focus on how they align to business outcomes.
It doesn’t really matter whether you’re selling jeans, sneakers or another kind of product entirely. What’s important is to keep data-driven thinking and processes at the forefront and use it to pivot your PR strategy when necessary.
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