Brand leaders face a challenging year to avert crisis from the crosshairs of the culture wars. Sixty-five countries across the globe will hold elections to select their leaders at a time when geopolitical interests, regional conflicts, and tribal behaviors stoke division. Advertising heavily influences public sentiment during election season. GroupM estimates that US political ad spend will reach $15.9 billion in 2024 — a 20% increase over 2020. Indeed, audiences are polarized. Analysis of Forrester’s Consumer Trust Imperative Survey, 2023, shows that US consumers hold opposing beliefs that companies should either stay out off or lead the change for culture war issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, and criminal justice reform.

No brand wants to face the reputational or financial setbacks that Anheuser-Busch, Disney, FIFA, or Target have experienced as a result of their PR crises. According to Forrester’s Q4 2023 B2C Marketing CMO Pulse Survey, political and geopolitical risks rank second in systematic risk factors influencing marketing plans and/or budgets in 2024. Yet for every brand embroiled in the culture war, there are examples of brands that escaped boycotts, such as Eli Lilly’s stance on abortion or Mastercard’s payments program for firearms. What accounts for the difference?

Navigate Polarization With Crisis/Reputation Management Services

PR agencies help shape consumer perception to steer brands around crisis. Given today’s heightened polarization, what role will PR agencies play in guiding corporate brands? We hypothesize three key elements that are fundamental to crisis and reputation services:

  • Brand-consistent response. The DNA of a brand never changes. When brands take actions consistent with consumers’ brand imprint, that brand is less susceptible to backlash and crisis. Eli Lilly’s position on abortion law is more palatable given its heritage as a health and pharmaceutical company. In contrast, Bud Light has little claim to LGBTQ+ rights.
  • Nimble crisis approach. The pace of cultural change demands flexibility. Brands that embrace a flexible approach are better equipped to navigate controversy. Mastercard’s willingness to pause developing payment policies for gun retailers kept the brand out of full-blown backlash, while Target’s inaction concerning verbal attacks to store employees encouraged disenchanted consumers, further embroiling the brand in controversy.
  • AI-powered audience and monitoring technology. Brands must understand the impact of PR backlash among their audiences. Today’s audience activation platforms and social media monitoring solutions enable brands to track signals of backlash, influential audiences, and which channels influence audiences. FIFA’s greenwashing controversy over the 2022 carbon-neutral World Cup could have been minimized by monitoring influencers and activist organizations, which became the source of false advertising complaints filed in five European nations.

Marketing, Corp. Comm., And PR Execs, What Do You Think?

My latest Forrester report will examine the role of PR agencies’ crisis and reputation management services in 2024. By conducting interviews and analyzing case studies with PR agency professionals, marketers, corporate communication professionals, and journalists, we will show how PR agencies help marketing and corporate communication executives effectively manage their brand’s perception during turbulence and crisis. This will include the strategies, tactics, capabilities, and technology employed by PR agencies to ensure that brands maintain a positive reputation and mitigate potential risks.

We Want To Hear From You

We are seeking interviews ASAP. If you’re interested in participating and are 1) an executive who has experience in providing reputation management services to brands or 2) a marketing/corporate communication professional with experience hiring and managing PR agency resources, please reach out to Jay Pattisall, VP and principal analyst at Forrester. Forrester treats research as confidential and fact-checks all research prior to publication. Participants will receive a courtesy copy of the report upon publication.