If you find your business at the end of a boycott, don't panic. There are a few steps you can take to help mitigate the damage and bring the boycott to a close.
When volunteers for an animal rights group began sending emails and posting to social media accusing his company of condoning cruelty to farm animals, John Crossman didn't know what to think. “We are a commercial real estate company," says the CEO of Orlando-based Crossman & Company. “We don't have anything to do with animals. But people gave us one-star reviews. People called us monsters."
A boycott began to look like a near-certainty. Social media posts from group volunteers urged readers not to do business with Crossman. Emails said they planned to have protesters at shopping centers managed by the company.
For months after the campaign began in April 2016, Crossman and his employees pondered the options but took no action. “Finally a woman commented on our Facebook page and said, 'John Crossman, I'm calling you out,'" Crossman says. “I said, 'If you're going to call me out, call me,' and posted my phone number."
When the volunteer rang Crossman, it was his first actual contact with the group. He calmly explained that this was a case of mistaken identity and later talked with the group's top leader, who ultimately agreed that Crossman & Company wasn't at fault. It turned out that his company was erroneously targeted because it managed a shopping center with a tenant that sold products the group objected to. After realizing its mistake, the group removed all its negative posts and reviews.
“No harm done," Crossman says. “I'm glad I didn't overreact. I'm glad my staff didn't overreact. We stayed very calm and professional about it and they responded to our kindness with kindness. If I had come back very harshly it might have turned out differently."
How to Handle a Boycott
Social media makes it easier than ever for people to call for boycotts against business of all sizes for all manner of offenses, real and imagined, against social and political beliefs and causes. According to crisis management experts, although most small and medium-sized businesses are not likely to be targeted by a boycott—and every situation is different and may require different coping techniques—it pays to know these seven best practices for handling a boycott if one happens to your business.
—Matt Krayton, founder, Publitics
1. Be aware.
Richard Levick, chairman and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm Levick, says boycotts can often be seen coming. “You want to be tracking [your company] on the internet, not just Google Alerts but on social media to see if there is starting to be anxiety or anger over your company or your product," he says.
2. Be prepared.
“Have a plan in place when crisis does strike or you have a problem with customers or your target audience," says Matt Krayton, founder of Caldwell, New Jersey, public relations firm Publitics. That can include assembling a crisis response team of executives, spokespeople, attorneys and others, drafting possible talking points and lining up potential allies in the form of sympathetic third parties who may be more credible defenders than the company's own leaders.
3. Don't overreact.
Although boycotts can be upsetting to business owners and employees and potentially cause long-term reputation harm, few produce much actual damage in the form of lost revenues and profits, Levick says. If handled properly, most boycotts will not harm the business.
4. Be calm and sympathetic.
“Always communicate politely with a smile. Say, 'I understand. Thank you very much. We're concerned about that,'" Levick says. Not acting defensive can help you appear more positively.
5. Be willing to tell the truth, even if it hurts.
“Transparency and openness are very important," says Jolie Balido, CEO and co-founder of public relations firm Roar Media in Coral Gables, Florida. “If your company has made a mistake, you're better off fessing up and identifying a clear path forward while emphasizing all the good work you've done in the past and are continuing to do."
6. Be proactive in offering a remedy.
If your company could be subject to penalties or other regulatory action as a result of whatever prompted the boycott, Levick urges you to act before regulators. “The gods of crisis demand a sacrifice," he says. “What's your sacrifice going to be? If you make your sacrifice, it's going to be an appeasement and will minimize or eliminate media interest."
7. Keep everybody on the same page.
After preparing talking points outlining a chronology of events, description of issues and answers to likely questions, select a spokesperson to offer a consistent message to customers, vendors, media and other stakeholders. Balido suggest providing this person with professional training.
The Boundaries of a Boycott Response
In the worst cases, boycotts can cause customers to shun a company's offering and even bring about lasting reputational damage.
Even if a boycott appears seriously threatening, Balido adds that it's critical to keep communications focused. “Stay within the scope of the issue at hand," she says.
Reacting to a boycott requires case-by-case analysis of the best way to go. “There's no manual you can keep on your desk and open it up to address a boycott," Balido says. Much depends on what prompted the boycott, whether the business is actually at fault and what the company is legally required or able to say.
Meanwhile, however, gaining at least some insight into what to do if your business is boycotted is likely to be a more useful skill tomorrow than it is today. “Consumers are becoming more conscious of where executives are positioning themselves on issues and they're taking notice of where brands are being proactive," Krayton says. “I expect that to continue to increase."