Spark Interview: How to Manage a Social Media Crisis.

Nandini Jammi, Founding Organizer of Sleeping Giants, reveals how brands can inadvertently find themselves embroiled in controversy — and how they can best recover.
Rachel Kador
September 23, 2019 - 5 min. read

In the age of consumer activism, no brand is immune from social media crisis. Whether you’re a small start-up or Google, the way you handle controversies matters. And when the going gets tough, social media teams are on the frontlines.  
Even the most conscientious brands realize there is no sure-fire way to avoid a crisis. So to avoid making a bad situation worse, smart brands prepare for crisis situations with strong guidelines to empower their communications teams.  
Nandini Jammi  — Founding Organizer at Sleeping Giants, the social media campaign making bigotry and hate unprofitable — knows all about social media crises. Sleeping Giants exposed the opaque word of programmatic advertising when it publicized the list of advertisers supporting figures like Breitbart’s Alex Jones and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.

Nandini will join us at Spark to host an incredible session all about how to handle a social media crisis, and what you can do to protect yourself in advance. 

We spoke with her to learn a bit more about the history of her organization and what brands can do to avoid finding themselves in these situations.  

Nandini will speak at #Spark19 on November 14. Early Bird tickets are available until September 30, 2019.

Q: I think it’s fair to say that Sleeping Giants has had a huge impact on corporate accountability in advertising. Before your group rose to prominence, what were the main driving forces within that area? Who or what was holding these companies to account for their advertising choices? How has Sleeping Giants changed that? 

Programmatic advertising was — and still is — the Wild West. Adtech is a space that is so opaque that even the biggest companies in the world had little to no idea how their money was being spent and what their return on investment really was. 

For years, adtech businesses sold the idea that to grow your business, you would have to scale your advertising across the web. That was the prevailing belief among marketing organizations, who basically consented to letting their ads appear anywhere on the internet (with some exceptions, such as gambling and porn) with the promise that it would give them better results.  

When we started our campaign against Breitbart, we had no idea we were inadvertently uncovering a massive fraud. Many of the businesses we flagged started wondering where else their ads were showing up and started performing audits. One of the most telling examples is JP Morgan Chase, which found that its ads were appearing on 400,000 websites by default. They then manually created a whitelist of just 5,000 websites they wanted to show up on — and found that the ROI stayed the same. In other words, what were they paying for? And why was their brand appearing on so many questionable sites?  
Q: Within a company, who should ideally be in charge of crisis communication? Is it a function of marketing? Of internal communications? Of a PR partner or agency? Should it be straight from the C-suite? Where does the responsibility lie?

Every serious business has a mission statement and values written down somewhere. Many of them have these founding ideas sitting prominently on their About Us and Careers pages. You use these to communicate what you’re really about both to your customers and your future hires. 

If you have clearly stated values, you can really empower your marketing or social media team to respond to minor crises. If you have this down, you can take care of small issues pretty quickly. 

But let’s say something’s started to spiral out of control. For example, meditation app Calm didn’t respond to calls to end their advertising on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight for days. People started using their own social media tools against them. This would have been a really good time for the CEO to come out and tell the public that they’ve been heard and re-affirm their commitment to their values. 

You don’t want to bring your CEO out for everything. Consider that your response is just another form of marketing. You want to be able to respond to the issue as a brand. 

Q: How can brands ensure their values are being represented by their advertising choices, especially when working with external partners?

There’s no easy answer here, unfortunately! 

If you’re a well-resourced business, you might consider developing a whitelist (like JP Morgan Chase) to ensure you know exactly where your ads are appearing. If you’re working with an agency, you could ask them to review online ad placements in Google AdWords and Facebook Ads at regular intervals, so you’re not totally in the dark on where your brand is appearing. 
Whether it’s TV, online, or elsewhere, if you’re working with a media buyer, be sure to get your brand safety expectations in writing. Advertising isn’t cheap — and these days being in the wrong place can actually harm your brand. 

Q: And to continue on a theme, how can brands ensure their values are being represented by their advertising choices, when, for lack of better words, shit happens so fast? One day a publisher could be a reputable channel, and the next be engulfed in scandal. How often should brands be updating and revising their media placements — and is there (or should there be) a “grace period?”  

There are two ways to find out your ads are in the wrong place: you discover it yourself or the public discovers it for you. What is your appetite for the latter?

If something crazy happened overnight, we’ll understand! Shit happens. But if you’re totally in the dark that your ad is appearing on say, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, which is now widely known as “White Power Hour” due to his white nationalist rants, we’ll hold you responsible for that. He’s been the subject of an ad boycott for over a year.

If your ads are suddenly appearing on there, someone should be getting in trouble. The key here should always be keeping an eye on where your ads are being placed.

Q: In the wake of a corporate crisis, a lot of companies debate whether or not to issue an apology. What is your advice to them? Are there any common pitfalls to avoid or factors to consider? Can you think of any examples of brands who have succeeded here? 

When all eyes are on you, that’s your opportunity to do some free marketing. If the situation calls for an apology, then issue an apology. You could also use it as an opportunity to affirm your values: 

“We regularly work with our media-buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company,” said Kelloggs when they discovered their ads were on Breitbart.

It wasn’t an apology. It was a public commitment to do better, which is just as good.