The polarized society: social media and crisis communication in 2022
Companies face a major challenge: How do I position myself in an increasingly polarized society?
First the refugee debate, then the climate crisis and now Corona politics: society continues to polarize, while Facebook, Twitter & Co. give more and more space to public outrage. Large parts of the population follow closed world views that no longer allow discourse. This is not only a major challenge for politics, which is faced with the task of uniting people again under consensual values and perspectives for the future; in terms of crisis prevention and communication, it is also a massive challenge for companies.
On the one hand, society demands that companies position themselves as unambiguously as possible politically, while on the other hand they are subjected to massive criticism from those whose worldview is not shared. In order not to alienate any buyer groups, many brand manufacturers therefore avoid making clear statements and are also attacked for doing so.
How Twitter is putting Facebook on the spot
A look at the USA shows how tricky the situation is from the perspective of crisis communication. Twitter has recently launched a high-profile attempt to combat fake news by adding a warning to a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump.
That Trump and the Trumpists were not happy with this fact check hint goes without saying and was accepted by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Dorsey, however, has put his competitor Mark Zuckerberg on the spot with this chess move. Because the Facebook CEO continues to reject such warnings and refuses to take a political stance, there has been a wave of resignations among top management – his employees are considered to be predominantly left-wing liberal.
While this example involves Silicon Valley giants, the challenge in terms of crisis communications affects nearly every mid-sized business. Media and consumer inquiries, such as the following, are not uncommon: What consequences do you draw when your employee shares right-wing populist posts on Facebook? Are you aware that employees in your company have been bullied several times because of their skin color or sexual orientation and what have you done about it? Please take a clear stand on the climate debate!
Escalation due to unfortunate communication
For companies, such inquiries are red-hot, because unfortunate responses on the social web can escalate in minutes and result in significant reputational damage. Crises often arise in this way without an actual underlying event, such as a fire, a compliance offense or a product recall.
I expect the polarization of society to continue for years to come, and perhaps even to intensify. Companies should prepare for this development and systematically train their crisis communication for such issues. In the first step, it is important to gain a fundamental understanding of which issues trigger crises, which dynamics fuel them, and what a de-escalating communications strategy can look like. In particular, however, companies must consider whether and how they want to position themselves sociopolitically and precisely weigh all the relevant pros and cons in this consideration.