Boycotts were once a protest tool wielded by consumers to prompt a business to change a certain behavior that, in practice, generated a largely spotty track record of success. Today, that paradigm appears to have shifted considerably.

The number of preemptive product boycotts – now being led by businesses – has become an almost predictable PR response to an ever expanding range of situations. There has been a variety such proactive actions from a wide range of major corporations in recent years including Wal-Mart dropping merchandise from Paul Deen, Cracker Barrel temporarily halting sale of Duck Dynasty merchandise, TV Land pulling The Dukes of Hazzard from its line-up, and Macy’s abandoning Trump-brand merchandise.

As PR professionals, the seemingly overnight adoption of this measure should give us pause. Here are three reasons why:

1. Sacrificing Strategy. Strategic communications counsel requires a thoughtful approach to handling potential issues. Using the preemptive boycott as a first-line response often fails to consider why that particular action is in a businesses’ best interest. In properly defining a strategic approach, it is helpful to take stock of the situation by asking a series of questions, such as:

  • What are the true reputational risks?
  • Does the issue at hand have the potential to meaningfully impact the brand?
  • Is the potential reputational impact real, or remote, at best?
  • What articulable reason, beyond perhaps avoiding a potential negative headline, justifies this action?
  • Is immediate action required? If not, at what threshold should corporate action be triggered?

2. Risky Precedent. Bold actions, such as preemptive product boycotts, are intended to have a profound short-term impact – both from a business and communications perspective. But these decisions can also have a lasting effect, as these actions will set future expectations. When similar inciting events occur in the future, the business will be presumed to react the same way – or explain why it isn’t acting as it had before. For the most egregious situations, such a precedent won’t be problematic. But if a brand overreacts too hastily, they may later find that their knee-jerk response did more harm than good.

3. Customer alienation. A business must maintain strong relationships with a number of constituencies, but when it comes to brand reputation, it’s the customer whose opinion should matter most. Flagrant and intolerable conduct aside, businesses should tread carefully when assessing proactive communication measures in response to controversial speech. What one person finds offensive, another might find mildly insensitive and yet others might agree with.

With the ability to launch an online petition in a matter of a few keystrokes, activists are increasingly trying to force businesses into the political and ethical fray. As a result, brands are increasingly being put in the position of serving as an aribtrar of both ideas and ideals. This is a perilous position, and one must truly know its customer base before weighing in with a proactive product boycott, as this could actually cause greater reputational damage.

-Mike Riley

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