Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Stephanie Newby, CEO of Crimson Hexagon.
In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the National Rifle Association has found itself, once again, at the center of a heated national debate about gun control. While this isn't a new position for the NRA, there's something different this time around: the NRA isn't the only organization feeling the heat.
In the weeks since the tragedy, hundreds of brands have found themselves drawn into the gun control controversy due to their affiliations with the embattled NRA. Companies like United Airlines, MetLife and Simplisafe have all faced consumer backlash, especially on social media, as consumers have taken them to task for their connections to the NRA. Hashtags like #BoycottNRA are trending on Twitter (and pointed at specific brands) since the Stoneman tragedy, and consumers haven't been shy about challenging brands to sever any and all NRA affiliations.
No two brands involved in the debate have exactly the same relationship to the NRA (or the same organizational politics), but they're all faced with the same question: Should they enter into the debate and risk alienating part of their audience? Or should they stand pat and hope the controversy passes?
While the #BoycottNRA movement makes this question especially relevant now, it's really just a microcosm of a larger shift that's changing the way global brands think about political movements. Social media has changed the calculus about when and if companies should respond to political controversies that tangentially or significantly affect their brand perception. Social media has given a new and powerful platform for activists and, perhaps more importantly, direct access to brands and their audiences.
In this article, I'll use the #BoycottNRA movement as a lens to explore that broader question as well as provide data to show how brands risk alienating their audience — and even suffer financial ramifications — by ignoring consumer-driven political debates.
The world's biggest megaphone
Four days after the shooting at her high school, teenager Emma Gonzalez created the Twitter account @Emma4Change to help garner support for her mission to reform gun laws and prevent future school shootings. Within two weeks, Gonzalez's new account surpassed 1 million followers, nearly twice as many as the NRA's own Twitter account.
Why is this important? It shows that nearly overnight, citizens can become influencers and activists on a scale that would've seemed unimaginable just a decade ago. For brands, this means that traditional communications strategies might be losing their sway. It's no longer wise to assume that the typical wielders of influence — journalists, national organizations, politicians — are the only ones who can alter the discussion about a global brand.
Today, a passionate citizen can single-handedly change the social conversation around a brand. Another student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, David Hogg, has been one of the most prominent voices calling for boycotting FedEx. His tweet has been shared more than 13,000 times, and his Twitter follower count has risen to almost 400,000 since his call for the FedEx boycott.
Again, this revelation is not unique to the current NRA debate. As we saw when we analyzed the #MeToo movement, social media influence is an incredibly powerful predictor of the distribution, duration and ultimate impact of a social or political movement. As people with large social followings entered the #MeToo debate, they instantly expanded the potential of the movement.
Here's a chart showing the total volume of tweets about sexual harassment and assault set against the average number of followers of the people involved in the conversation. Clearly, there's a strong correlation between social media reach and conversation volume overall.
Never before has it been clearer that social media gives an incredibly powerful platform to shape and propel political conversations, and not just for people who are already famous,
But it's important to remember that it's not just about people with large social followings. As social media has helped provide a megaphone for influential citizens, it's also given direct access for millions of "average" consumers. This platform means that a large number of consumers can work together to keep the pressure on a brand long after the normal news cycle has been exhausted.
The power of the many
When a brand finds itself drawn into a political debate, they typically assess the risks and benefits of taking a stance versus sidestepping the issue. Before social media, this decision was much simpler. A story may receive a day or even a week of coverage before it leaves the news cycle. Brands that decided to stay quiet often suffer short-term blowback before the entire issue passes.
But social media gives a channel for passionate consumers to keep an issue alive for as long as they want. When #BoycottNRA started bouncing around Twitter and other social platforms, consumers quickly directed it at specific brands. And they haven't let up yet.
Here's an annotated chart of the social conversation volume for the NRA since 2010.
Clearly, the Parkland shooting — and the anti-NRA activism that's surged in response — has taken the gun control conversation to never-before-seen levels.
But the relevant point here is less about the overall NRA conversation and more about how that discussion is drawing in specific brands. Knowing that gun control is a fiercely debated issue with two strong sides, how should brands respond when they're called in to the controversy?
Speak up or stand pat?
If we set aside the separate issue of brands' own politics, we're left with a pretty simple question: Are brands better off responding to consumers' calls for action or waiting until the issue blows over?
In the case of #BoycottNRA, it's important to look at the data.
Dozens of brands have been called out by consumers demanding that they cut ties with the NRA. Some, such as MetLife and United Airlines, have heeded the call and announced changes to their relationship with the NRA. Others, including FedEx, have remained neutral and kept their policies and relationships intact. Which strategy is safer? Have the companies that took action seen changes to the conversation about them in relation to the NRA? Have companies that stayed away from the issue seen the storm pass with little impact?
Here are two charts that can help answer that question. The first shows the conversation volume for four brands that responded to consumer activism by ending NRA-focused programs. The other chart shows companies that have either not responded or not changed their existing NRA policies.
In the first chart, we see several companies whose social conversation volume soared as consumers demanded action from them. Once action was taken, the conversation volume for each of the brands returned nearly to baseline levels. This suggests that their actions were enough to quell consumer outrage.
The second chart tells a different story. While conversation levels are on the decline, they are still well above their normal levels. This is especially true for FedEx, who has traditionally low levels of social conversation, but is now above giants like Apple and Amazon who regularly command hundreds of thousands of daily posts, even when they're not enveloped in a controversy.
But conversation volume is just the first lens to look at. What happens when we analyze the topics within the conversation about FedEx? Is the NRA issue dominating the brand's overall conversation?
The answer is clearly yes. Here are the top hashtags in the FedEx social conversation for February. They're virtually all about the company’s NRA ties, aside from the general #FedEx hashtag.
What's more, we can easily see how the conversation itself has changed. Here are two topic wheels centered on the FedEx conversation from before the NRA issue and since.
Clearly, the company's NRA affiliation has completely dominated its conversation on social. Of course, this will die down eventually, but the question is: when? And what will the damage be by that point?
By serving as a platform to emerging influencers and providing direct access to brands and their audiences, social media has changed the way companies decide whether to enter into political debates. As the climate of social becomes more political in general, and as consumers demand more action from brands, remaining "neutral" may no longer be a suitable option. Only by understanding how social conversations grow and impact brand perception can companies hope to make the right decisions about political activism and movements.