The last few days have been a crazy ride for Hallmark. After receiving complaints from conservative activist group One Million Moms (1MM), Hallmark Channel pulled a commercial that featured a same-sex couple kissing. This decision triggered a massive social media firestorm. Just three days later, Hallmark’s CEO issued a public apology and promised to reinstate the ad.
This spectacular flip-flopping is a perfect case study to better understand how marketers can deal with online criticism. And spoiler alert: The old rules of how to respond to a crisis don’t work the same any longer in today’s social media game.
Today’s social media landscape is marked by competing and often well-organized special interest groups that pull brands into opposing directions. In order to successfully navigate these new realities, brands have to evolve their approach to online criticism and social media firestorms.
If Hallmark Channel had understood these new rules, it could have even leveraged the original criticism as an opportunity to build brand value. Instead, Hallmark lost its head and panicked.
The whole backstory of the #BoycottHallmark saga has been described already, so let’s cut right to the chase with analysis.
What is the core problem?
Hallmark CEO Mike Perry stressed in his apology last Sunday that it “is never Hallmark’s intention to be divisive or generate controversy.”
Yet within a time span of just five days, Hallmark was shamed twice. First by people who were offended by seeing LGBTQ+ commercials on the channel, and then by people who were offended by seeing LGBTQ+ commercials removed from the channel.
It’s hard to say what was going on inside the company when Hallmark Channel decided to crumble to the original pressure organized by 1MM. In part, it was probably a reflexive response to online criticism that is drilled into managers’ minds through an army of PR consultants.
Maurice Schweitzer and colleagues, for example, argue in Harvard Business Review that companies need to be responsive to online criticism, regardless of whether a violation is “real or perceived.” They wrote that “leaders should consider others’ perceptions of the potential violation and move swiftly to address them.”
You’ve probably heard similar advice before. And it makes sense. Apologizing and appeasing not only sound reasonable but are also backed by decades of research on crisis management.
But here’s the problem: This conventional advice is fully predicated on assumptions and conditions that are simply not always true any longer.
The old rules of crisis management are not always right
In our own research, my coauthor Andrew Smith and I explained how conventional crisis response strategies assume that all consumers are on the same page regarding whether or not a company’s behavior was wrong.
This is indeed the case for most process-based or product-based crises. When a car company cheats in its emission tests, it’s pretty clear cut. Apologizing for and correcting for these types of transgressions is still an adequate response.
However, most social media firestorms are much more ambiguous in nature. Research has found that more than 60% of online controversies are based on charges of moral misconduct rather than some objective product failure or corporate wrongdoing. In these moral-based social media firestorms, as we call them, whether or not a company has done anything wrong is, first and foremost, a matter of perspective.
Here’s the thing: It comes all down to what value systems consumers embrace.
Hallmark Channel was trapped between two competing moral camps
This brings us back to Hallmark Channel’s not-so-unique dilemma. Hallmark’s decision to pull an ad that shows two women kissing resulted in two equally intense, but opposing, reactions from consumers. It was celebrated by some and vilified by others. Hallmark was trapped at the center of this cultural tug of war.
It is in this no man’s land between two ideologically opposed camps where traditional crisis response strategies fail.
Hallmark’s intention to not generate any controversy is fully inadequate in a situation where any action (airing the commercial or pulling it) would offend at least some consumers. When it comes to moral-based social media firestorms, companies have to embrace the controversy. There’s no other way.
In other words, companies have to pick their side if they want to have any cultural cachet with consumers that demand brands not only stand for something but also act on their values.
A missed opportunity for brand building
Hallmark Channel could have garnered praise like Nike in 2018 if it had continued airing the commercial. Or Hallmark could have stood its ground when their decision to pull the ad came under fire, thus likely earning loyalty from some of their core viewers.
However, after flip-flopping back and forth between two morally-opposed camps, Hallmark Channel has won neither battle. Even as the LGBTQ+ part of Twitter is heating up with joy that Hallmark Channel has reversed course, some observers are quick to remind everyone that no hero was born last Sunday:
It could have been different. Hallmark Channel could have been a champion for consumers that share their value system. But for this, the brand would have to risk standing its ground in a controversy.