Unintended backlash: what to do when your customers or staff do not agree with your views

When a backlash occurs, with due objectivity, for each situation you’ll need to weigh the financial and reputational risks, says Minter Dial

When you want to innovate – not to say disrupt — you have to be prepared to push the bounds which can sometimes include making you unpopular in some people’s eyes. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in an interview on  Business Insider with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Axel Springer: ‘If you’re going to do anything new or innovative, you have to be willing to be misunderstood.’

Whether it’s innovating the products and services you sell or the marketing campaigns you create to be heard, you’re going to have to push your limits which means you may create a backlash.

In a world where every bit of revenue counts and many companies have made being customer centric a strategic imperative, leadership is being increasingly challenged to find ways to stand out from the crowd. Moreover, infused with new applications, technology and the Internet, the internal functioning of an organisation is now increasingly visible to the outside world. We have seen a surging need for authenticity and transparency and a growing interest in the genuine (i.e. de facto) values of a company. Where business culture – with the behind-the-scene behaviours and opinions – used to be obscured behind a veil, not only can questionable ethics be exposed, there is now the risk about being called out or worse, cancelled. So, the challenge for leaders and their marketing teams is to find ways to get their message out, to pierce through the noise, and also be congruent with one’s values. Are we going to try to please everyone or are we going to have the courage to stand up for what we stand for? So, what happens when your actions incur the wrath of your customers and, worse, your employees?

It all boils down to intention. If you had decent intentions but you take an action that creates a bad reaction, you will have a much greater chance of coming out with your head held high. The key is making sure that those intentions were communicated internally to the team and agents putting forward the message or idea.

In this new world order, it’s important to understand the power of the inside-out model. The core concept of this model is that what you say and how you act need first to resonate with the internal members of your team or organisation. To the extent that your product or service depends on many different members of your team, you want them to be your number one fans, have a sense of belonging and feel proud of what they’re working on. If your staff feel wronged or offended by something you, as the boss, said or did, you will need to do some soul searching. What was your deep-down intention? First, applying a great deal of honest introspection, was it aligned with your values and what you as an individual stand for?

Second, was it aligned with what the company stands for? If not, you need to self-assess that you are at fault. In which case, you need not just to apologise quickly for you did, but you need to evaluate how you are going to change your ways, with specific behaviours and actions that prove your commitment.

If on the other hand, your intentions were solidly aligned but what you said was taken the wrong way, the gap is less ominous. In this case, you need to get the team on board by transparently and genuinely expressing your contrition in the way it came out. When saying that you are sorry, it is not sufficient to apologise. You must be able to demonstrate it through changed behaviour.

Once you have your core parties (ie. employees and key partners) back on your side, you will still need to deal with the impact among the customers. There is no simple solution to getting through a crisis, especially when the backlash is fierce. But there are three actions that every company ought to take, if not done already.

1Articulate precisely what you stand for and express your values in visible behaviours such that everyone understands your specific definition.

2Create an ethical framework that identifies what you believe is right and wrong.

3Check to make sure your principles of governance are aligned.

In facing the backlash, if large swathes of your employees and customers are up in arms, and to the extent you recognise your error, regardless of your intentions, you’ll need to come clean, quickly and candidly. Platitudinous apologies won’t cut it.

The character of your views is important. This becomes particularly tricky when presenting one’s political stance. I break this down into two categories. The first is regarding the ‘hot’ political topics. On the one hand, there can be so much pressure that by not saying anything, your silence may be considered acquiescence with the offending parties (i.e. by not including a hashtag in support, you might be held guilty by your silence). Yet, just adding the hashtag, which is tantamount to lip service, you are not fooling anyone. The more important concept is to evaluate the political topics that legitimately matter to you and your company, where you and your stakeholders are genuinely concerned.

Reality is that you will be evaluated whether or not you decide to take a political position. If your viewpoint is genuinely a conviction you hold and you wish to lean into an otherwise unpopular stance, assuming the governance in place is upheld, you may end up winning over one community while upsetting another. This comes down to some strategic questions. Are you prepared to stand up for what matters and, in consequence, stand out? Or would you prefer to try to please everyone all the time? In which case, you can risk falling into the abyss of mediocrity.

At the end of the day, each situation depends on the context. The better you know your real purpose and understand your core market, the more evident the response you need to make becomes. When a backlash occurs, with due objectivity, for each situation you’ll need to weigh the financial and reputational risks. And in the aftermath, it’s worth doing a post mortem to see how you did. Too often, businesses run from one situation to the next without doing a proper evaluation to extract the lessons learned.

Your reputation is constructed by the little actions every day. Building the inside-out model, you need to focus on aligning your internal teams and stakeholders. If the backlash was truly unintended, you will be best served by being completely honest and transparent. If your intentions were otherwise, you’re playing a different game. 

Minter Dial is an international professional and energetic speaker and a multiple award-winning author, specialised in leadership, branding and transformation. An agent of change, he’s a three-time entrepreneur who has exercised twelve different métiers and changed country fifteen times. Minter’s core career stint of 16 years was spent as a top executive at L’Oréal, where he was a member of the worldwide Executive Committee for the Professional Products Division. He’s author of the award-winning WWII story, The Last Ring Home (documentary film and biographical book, 2016) as well as two prize-winning business books, Futureproof (2017) and Heartificial Empathy (2019). His next book on leadership, You Lead, How being yourself makes you a better leader (Kogan Page) comes out in January 2021. He’s been host of the Minter Dialogue weekly podcast since 2010. He is passionate about the Grateful Dead, Padel Tennis, languages and generating meaningful conversations. @mdial / minterdial.com 

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