How Digital Activism Is Changing The Meaning of Brand Management

A virtual Tsunami of negative consumer sentiment was unleashed back on April 1, 2017, when the New York Times published an expose titled, “Bill O’Reilly Thrives at Fox News, Even as Harassment Settlements Add Up.”

O’Reilly denied the accusations in a prepared statement, stating,

“Just like other prominent and controversial people, I have become a target for connivers looking to enrich themselves.”

But within a matter of days, consumers took to social media to demand O’Reilly’s ouster and generally attacked Fox News for allowing such behavior to happen in the first place.

Ten years ago – this event might have blown over. However, with social media’s ability to amplify protests with amazing speed, a white-hot spotlight was placed on O’Reilly, Fox News, and its parent company 21st Century Fox. This digital-activism is clearly enforcing change.

When Rupert Murdoch and his family (who own a controlling interest in 21st Century Fox) watched their equity valuation take a beating, they were forced to act, and as a result, terminate O’Reilly’s contract.

This action did not come cheap: His contract pay-out was reported to be more than $20 million; They were in fact killing a goose that laid golden eggs.

CNBC reported that “The O’Reilly Factor” spent 15 years as the highest-rated cable news show.

Analysts reported that the show brought in $325 million in ad revenue for Fox during 2015-16, making it the top revenue-producer of any show on Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC.

Leading Brands Were Forced to Take a Stand

Big brands with money to spend on cable advertising naturally looked to Fox and Bill O’Reilly, as it was the #1 show of cable news in 2016 in terms of total viewers, the adult 25-54 news demo, and even among adults age 18-49.

In the days after The New York Times April 1st story, advertisers like Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai began pulling their ads from the show.

In March of 2017 marketers bought more than 15 minutes of advertisements on the show, one fourth of its airtime.

That translated to 30 advertisers running 35 spots per show. By O’Reilly’s final show on April 11 those numbers were down to 10 advertisers running 10 spots.

It’s worth applauding the marketers who acted quickly to move their brands out of the show, including T. Rowe Price, LegalZoom.com, E-Trade, Jenny Craig, Trivago, Carfax, Navy Federal Credit Union, Terminix, and the Society for Human Resource Management.

How Social Media Has Changed Brand Management

Big brands no longer have the luxury of developing an annual marketing plan, creating expensive TV ads, placing them in the media and then sitting back to watch them work their marketing magic to drive sales or change people’s perceptions of brands.

Because social media can work so fast, they must now pro-actively manage when, where, and how their messages are delivered to consumers.

Acting in a typically corporate way – cautious, measured, and with little sense of urgency in the face of a rising tide of bad consumer sentiment can be the kiss of death for a brand.

The Times went on to report that, “Fears of Revolt by Consumers Felled O’Reilly.” The story noted,

“This strikingly swift fall was ushered in by an advertising exodus that rattled the highest reaches of the Fox empire, and delivered an unsettling message to corporate America: You’re on notice.”

The Times continued:

“In an era when outrage can be easily channeled online, major brands are well-aware of the risk of revolts from consumers who are increasingly savvy about hitting companies where it hurts…”

“The allegations are disturbing,” a Mercedes spokeswoman, Donna Boland, said in a blunt statement after the company pulled its “O’Reilly Factor” ads.

“Given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”

As NPR’s marketplace.org observed that,

“These days, U.S. consumers expect companies to do more than just sell them stuff. Many want the businesses they buy from to stand for something.”

Managing brands that need to respond fast to a changing social media landscape takes focus and a different mindset. I applaud those brands that pulled their ads from “The O’Reilly Factor” and Fox News.

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Neelam Brar

Neelam is an accomplished female entrepreneur, financier, and start-up adviser. She is the founder and CEO of District CoWork, one of the hottest hub for innovation in NYC and Empress, an empowerment platform designed to mentor and support women. Neelam founded Empress to unite the strongest stakeholders behind the economy: Women. Empress is the nexus of content, community and capital. With a dual MBA from Columbia Business School and London Business School and experience raising capital and advising growth companies throughout the US, Canada, Singapore, Mumbai and Hong Kong, she has tremendous first hand insights on several topics relevant to entrepreneurship and innovation. Neelam did investment banking and private equity for over a decade raising billions of dollars of capital and advising on high profile M&A transactions in the domestic and international markets across industries. She is a veteran deal maker and growth advisor with proven entrepreneurial experience and a firm commitment to support the progress of women.