How to deal with consumer protest

A campaign spokesman is announcing a boycott of one of your key products. Your company name is trending alarmingly on social media and a junior member of staff has wondered if you're going out of business. So what next?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Be prepared. Engaging with the wider world will ensure you are aware of issues before they reach boycott stage, says N Craig Smith, chair in ethics and social responsibility at Insead in Paris. 'Management can be blinkered and it helps if you look beyond the business,' he says.

Duncan Gray, consultant at crisis management specialist Sancroft, adds: 'You should have a process for crisis management in place, so you don't have to start from scratch when the storm hits.'

Take it seriously. David Carter, UK head of crisis communications at PR firm Fleishman-Hillard, says an isolated call to action on Twitter in the morning can be retweeted by an influencer or celebrity and escalate rapidly. 'If it is picked up by a mainstream journalist it can be on the national news that evening. Perfect storms can be created in real time.'

Organise your response. 'If it's a local problem, don't put your CEO on national TV, get your local people to deal with it,' says Gray. 'Dealing with a crisis often falls to the communications team,' adds Carter. 'But operations, finance and marketing should all be involved. If it affects the whole organisation, all your people need to be ready to respond.'

Talk to the protesters. 'When McDonald's was targeted by Greenpeace, it picked up the phone and agreed to work with them,' says Gray. He adds: 'Find out what they really want; sometimes, it's not the thing they've threatened the boycott over.'

Evaluate potential damage. Many companies overestimate a boycott's effect on sales and underestimate the impact on long-term reputation, says Smith. 'Barclays was boycotted by students during apartheid, but although it did pull out of South Africa, for many from that generation it is still tainted.'

Consider your position. If you are a Starbucks, you are far more vulnerable to boycott than B2B or online businesses. 'A key reason people join boycotts is to enhance their self-esteem,' says Smith. 'In a Starbucks you are acting visibly, but if you boycott Google or Amazon nobody can see you.'

Also consider the 'substitution effect'. Are there plenty of alternatives if a consumer decides to boycott your product?

Make a business decision. 'Once you have considered the issue objectively, looked at your own values and what your customers and other stakeholders want, you will have to decide what is the right outcome. Then communicate it fast,' says Gray.

Explain. Once you've decided on a course of action, share it with everyone involved and make sure they are aware of the good things your company does.

Do say: 'We have asked to meet the campaigners to hear their concerns.'

Don't say: 'It'll soon blow over.'

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