Controversy can make a small business, but it can also break one. You may think it’s smart to align your business with a controversy to build your brand, but if it doesn’t jibe with your mission it can actually hurt it.
“Going out and looking for trouble isn't a good idea for individuals and it's not a good idea for businesses either,” says Eileen Bernardo, a social media strategist at Viralheat. “Building a brand on controversy is like building a skyscraper on shaky foundation - it will crumble under pressure.”
But if a controversy does come your way and it is something you and your business truly cares about it, aligning with the controversy can pay dividends and it’s not going to cost you much if anything at all.
“As long as the controversy doesn’t unveil a transgression for parties in your organization or puts your organization in a bad position, it can come as a welcomed opportunity to voice your opinion,” says Jeremy Juhasz, social media strategist at EMSI Public Relations. “Controversial topics are typically trending ones. Staying silent on the issue won’t hurt or help you, but expressing an opinion gives your brand a personality.”
So how can you go about aligning your business with a controversy? Eric Schiffer, chairman of ReputationManagementConsultants.com, says you want to make sure you are on the right side of the issue, at least from the perspective of your customers and potential ones.
Take gun rights and control as one example. An owner of a gun store who campaigns with the National Rifle Association is going to be viewed positively by gun lovers, but if that person does the opposite and supports stricter restrictions he or she is apt to turn off existing customers and any new ones.
Same goes with hunting controversies. Someone out pounding the table on the virtues of hunting are going to anger animal lovers, and if you own a pet shop it’s a great issue to align with.
“If the controversy runs afoul of the law or if someone has done something nefarious or immoral, than it’s not a good thing,” says Schiffer. But excluding those illegal controversies, he says small businesses can and should embrace controversy and seek ways to participate in solving the problem and at the same time build awareness about the company.
You may be reluctant to get involved, but if the controversy aligns with your business and you truly feel strong about it than Juhasz says by all means jump into the conversation by engaging with people on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and even consider taking out advertisements. He says to also reach out to the important and influential people on the topic and generally get active. “By doing so, you signify a lively organization and a fearless one,” he says. “People who gravitate to your brand will share your opinion.”
If your small business is at the center of the controversy, there are ways to handle it so you come out ahead. Bernard says the worst thing you can do is ignore it or try to distance yourself from it, because it only makes you look guilty or as if you have something to hide. Instead you want to publicly acknowledge the situation very quickly and make your stance known.
“Do not throw more fuel on the fire or not take responsibility,” says Bernard. “These are the quickest ways to turn a small flame into a forest fire. For example, if a high-ranking employee is involved in a questionable situation, do not ignore the situation or give the media more reason to talk.”