How Brands Are Leveraging Politics in the Age of Transparency

Don’t worry, this isn’t just another Chick-fil-A post, but rather an examination of where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going in the age of transparency.

Ever since social media splashed on the scene and disrupted public relations as we know it, the industry has been under an exponentially increasing pace of change.  In no greater way has it affected PR than in the fact that PR practitioners,can no longer “hide.” It has pushed us to a new level of information sharing and this is a great thing.

This age of transparency has profoundly impacted brands in several forms.  Prior to the economic downturn of 2008, consumers began demanding to know where their products came from.  This especially held true as part of the green movement. Consumers wanted to know what kind of environmental impact the products they bought had.  Even Walmart, the biggest retailer in the world, began a program to illustrate each product’s carbon footprint.

This movement lost steam with the economic downturn as consumers abandoned the environmental focus in lieu of cost and value. Walmart has since cancelled their program.  As we adjust to this new normal, consumers still have green in mind – it’s just not at the forefront as it once was.

A new trend emerged in the human rights realm. Perhaps the true leader who has ridden this trend more successfully than any other is Tom’s Shoes, who donate a pair of shoes to those in third world countries for every pair of shoes sold.  As a result, Tom’s has enjoyed becoming a bit of status symbol, especially among young people and hipsters.

However no human rights topic has brought more controversy than the topic of gay marriage. Some brands have ridden this wave to success, others have faltered.

But no one cashed in better, than department store retailer JCPenney when they chose Ellen Degeneres as a spokesperson early this year.  An openly gay American, with one of the most popular daytime talk shows, Ellen came under fire from a group called “One Million Moms” who represented what they called “pro-family advocacy.” Used to being attacked on the nature of her sexual orientation, Ellen took the rare step of addressing the issue head on:

“I usually don’t talk about stuff like this on my show, but I really want to thank everyone who is supporting me,” she said. “Here are the values I stand for: I stand for honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you’d want to be treated and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values. That’s what I stand for.”

This bold move turned out to be a good one, as public support for Ellen and JCPenney quickly overwhelmed the rhetoric from One Million Moms, who in fact were not one million strong as their name suggested.  Many people expressed that they would become first time JCPenney shoppers as a result of backing Ellen.  JCPenney continued on this thread by running an ad for Father’s Day that contained a real-life family of two dads and their children.

Taking a page from JCPenney’s book, Kraft/Nabisco brand Oreo declared their support of gay rights when they posted an image on Facebook using an Oreo cookie to depict a rainbow on Pride Day – June 25. Under the image they posted “Proudly Support Love!” Kraft Foods representative Basil Maglaris called the image “a fun reflection of our values.”

As one would expect, the image brought a strong reaction from both sides. However, in general, just like with JCPenney the image received more positive than negative feedback.  This a reflection that same sex relationships have become socially acceptable to a growing majority of Americans since 2010, according to polls conducted by Gallup.

But what happens when a brand takes a stance on an issue that is against the majority?  That’s what Chick-fil-A found out when their CEO Dan Cathy was asked by the Baptist Press if he was opposed to gay marriage. He responded,

“Guilty as charged.” Adding, “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. … We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

The full repercussions of this off the cuff comment are still unclear. However, what unfolded is perhaps one of the most botched PR responses in recent memory. As a company that has never been shy about its Christian values – even remaining closed on Sundays when malls where it is generally located are filled with people – I was surprised that they did not embrace the comment immediately. Instead they chose not to communicate to their franchise owners who began speaking to the press in support, or against the CEO’s comments creating a fragmented PR nightmare.

Jim Henson Company, who had a contract to supply toys to the franchise and a long history of promoting equality for all, pulled their support, at which point Chick-fil-A said the toys were recalled despite there never being a report filed with the Consumer Protection Agency. When a Facebook commenter called them on this, Chick-fil-A responded by creating two fake Facebook accounts, using stock photography. Again, they got caught red handed, however Chick-fil-A stands by they were not behind these accounts.  There’s no pulling the wool over the public’s eyes in the age of transparency.  Then in a bizarre and sad twist of fate, Chick-fil-A’s lead PR person for 29 years, died suddenly of a heart attack.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee came to brand’s aid by supporting them with “Appreciation Day” on August 1st where the franchise reported record sales.  People lined up around the block to support the chain’s stance on gay marriage.  It is telling, however, that it took outside support to pull this off.  It is unclear if this brand advocate was called upon by Chick-fil-A, but at the moment the signs point to no as most franchises were unprepared for the crowd – many running out of chicken.

In spite of the day’s success, the brand seems intent on trying to move on from the issue releasing the following statement this week.

“Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” it said.

What the take away of all this is that brands whether willingly or not, taking a stance on political or social issues, better be prepared to handle the response.

Some may argue that the Chick-fil-A CEO’s comments were his personal, not his brand’s, views. However, employees, especially high level ones, need to keep in mind that they are always representing their workplace or brand wherever they go, and especially when speaking to media.  Who “media” are in the age of smartphones is debatable.  And the line between work and home life has also blurred, if not disappeared with the emergence of Twitter and other social media platforms.  You can either choose to embrace this new paradigm and be yourself, or choose to edit your comments.  You’re not safe even amongst “friends” as presidential candidate Mitt Romney has found out the hard way at a few fundraising events.

Whether the new rules of engagement in age of transparency are fair is debatable.  Regardless, as PR practitioners, employees and brand ambassadors, we need to play by these new and ever-changing rules, or suffer the consequences. What is clear is that we have begun a new era in branding where social and political stances of brands and their key stakeholders have entered the marketing conversation.  And I think they’re here to stay.

Photo Credit

Vanessa Williams
Enjoying life by exploring and learning new things everyday. Aspiring author and blogger at I earn a living as public relations and social media strategist and I love it. I'm the person you ask about what's going on and where you should go. People often describe me as well-connected, friendly and optimistic. I think fast and talk faster.
  • jimdougherty

    Thank you so much for this great contribution Vanessa! I never correlated these campaigns with an embrace of identity politics by brands, but you’re exactly right. clearly there’s strategy behind it, but it’s a brave new world and I’m glad I’m not in the PR profession! Really thought provoking piece! Wonderful read.

  • R E Thornton

    Too true.  The thing with being yourself, however, is that not everyone may like you.  We to have the confidence to be prepared for that possibly.  

    • jimdougherty

      Thanks Robin for reading and commenting!  As I wrote to @prpeep:twitter , I feel fortunate not to be in the PR profession, because momentum for any of these campaigns must be near impossible to quell.  

  • Gini Dietrich

    It used to be politics and religion weren’t discussed outside of one’s home and now it’s everywhere. We can’t even vote for the President without knowing his religious beliefs. It saddens me. But, the PR issue at stake here is huge. All of the examples you use are very good ones that show how taking a professional stance on your personal opinions is going to end up biting you in the butt. I know that my beliefs are different than some of our clients, but as the leader of our organization, I keep that rhetoric out of the conversations. Always. Why is that so hard for other leaders to do?

    • jimdougherty

      Such a great insight Gini!  It perplexes me that these companies are so willing to take a stand on hot-button issues that may solidify one segment of their customer base but completely alienate another.  While I find it bold and somewhat admirable that companies would be willing to take a stand based upon their beliefs, I can’t help but think how risky a strategy like that could be (particularly the deliberate campaigns),  Thanks so much for reading and commenting on @prpeep’s great piece!

  • Michael S.

    Great article! We are launching a new product and looking to get some brand ambassadors to post flyers on campus and their social media accounts. Since they are getting paid weekly, we don’t need to have them say they’re getting paid in their posts, correct?