Authenticity is Key for Brands During the Government Shutdown

It wasn’t too long ago when PR pros counseled brands against making overt forays into politics. 'Stick to your knittin', 'stay in your lane' or some other cliché was the standard response. It’s no longer so simple.

We know, there's much research showing that consumers want brands to take stands on issues. Some tend to favor those brands, particularly when they share the brands' stated views on an issue. Perhaps this desire for brands to become involved in issues relates to the public's lack of trust in other institutions.

That said, the savvy brand does its homework before wading into politics or social issues. It's argued that Nike's knowledge of its customer base informed its decision to back Colin Kaepernick. Yes, the calculations foretold, some customers would abandon Nike for political reasons, but most would embrace it.

Taking a Stand by Committee

Southwest Airlines has a committee composed of members from several departments, including communications, diversity & inclusion, legal and H.R. This Social Topics Committee advises the CEO on which issues to engage with and which to avoid. It meets monthly. When working on responses to fast-moving issues, the group will assemble within 12 hours, Southwest CCO Linda Rutherford tells us.

Some time ago Southwest "missed" on an issue, Rutherford says. The culprit was a lack of diverse opinions. The Social Topics-Committee owes its existence to that miss, she notes.

The Committee uses an interactive PDF tool “that allows for multiple inputs...based on questions about perceptions, risks, audience impacts, benefits and other factors,” she says. Comments from employees, the public and frequent flyers are considered.

As each member provides input into threshold questions, the interactive framework tool—in the shape of a pyramid—begins to turn colors (red is negative or caliente; gray is neutral; and green is positive). Red signals the committee likely will recommend that the Southwest CEO avoid engaging on the topic.

Walled In

Here in Washington, D.C., it seems all anyone can talk about is the border wall and the related shutdown of several federal government departments. On television, the cable news channels seem to be 'wall-to-wall wall.' The shutdown has resulted in a slew of area brands offering furloughed federal workers freebies, radio station WTOP reports.

A local pizza chain &pizza is offering complimentary pies to federal workers during the shutdown. High-profile chef José Andrés is serving sandwiches gratis during lunch at his D.C. restaurants for unpaid federal workers. Little Havana is offering 50% off all drinks. At lunch and dinner today, Z-Burger Tenleytown is serving federal employees, no charge.

Exercise and Improv

With all the free and discounted food and drink available in the DC area, it's good news that trendy Cycled! fitness studio is letting furloughed feds join classes in yoga, barre or cycling for free. Zengo Cycle has discounts on off-peak classes.

With Smithsonian museums shuttered, other museums are eager to attract business. Normally closed in January, the Woodrow Wilson House is open and free to feds during the shutdown. Little-known D.C. gem, President Lincoln's Cottage, Lincoln's hilltop summer retreat, also has free admission for government workers. The Newseum, one of the area's hottest museums museums that also happens to charge a hefty admission fee ($25 for adults), is letting government workers enter free.

A clever offer comes from Washington Improv Theater. Its artistic and executive director Mark Chalfant has not only held a free improv session for furloughed workers, he's also offering free bipartisan improv classes for members of Congress and chiefs of staff. The offer is good during or after the shutdown. "Improv is an amazing tool to help people connect, communicate, and collaborate," he wrote to the lawmakers. "We’d love to find a time for folks from both sides of the aisle to rediscover what it’s like to say yes, withhold judgement, and work together."

Political or Good Will?

The question, of course, is whether or not these brands conducted the same due diligence as Nike and Southwest. Were risks considered? Could they afford to offend customers?

On the other hand, kindnesses to government workers may be apolitical, akin to offering military discounts.

The Drinks are on Mexico

For Laura Guitar, EVP/partner, crisis communications & reputation management, rbb Communications, brands must clearly communicate their intent. Are the freebies political or not? "For brands that have already established a comfort level with political edginess, offering a drink called 'Mexico Will Pay for This', as Capitol Lounge is doing, is a perfectly appropriate response." She adds, "For companies that have not already determined where they fall in communicating on the political spectrum, now is not the time to wade into those waters."

The garden-variety PR advice contends that brands carefully consider their actions. In addition, they must make sure to remain authentic and transparent. Chef Andrés has made his political views known for some time. His government shutdown lunch offer is not only tasty, but totally authentic in line with his brand's values.

“The majority of for federal employees aren’t making a political statement. They’re showing that they care about and are connected to their consumer base," says Anthony DeAngelo, a director at APCO Worldwide and former Capitol Hill staffer. "D.C. is a community like any other," he adds, "and when people are impacted, regardless of party, communities often rally to support their own." A fair point.

He adds, "The brands that authentically act and communicate on that point may be the only winners in this shutdown.”

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News.  Follow him: @skarenstein