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Nuance and Tone when dealing with Emotional Attachments

14Nov Posted by Ben Rothschild

We live in an age of emotion, a time when rage or joy and everything in between can be seen more publically and spread more quickly than we would have ever thought possible mere decades ago. As you may have guessed, social media takes credit (or blame?) for this, and can also make a difficult situation even more so for communicators and businesses.  The key question is; how to communicate when dealing with a product or service where the consumers have a strong personal investment in that product?

From the outset this is tricky – any change to things people feel passionately about will anger some consumers, simply out of a dislike of change, whilst others may respond positively. This is further magnified when dealing with some of the more divisive questions of the day – race, gender, religion, politics, these topics always seem to create arguments  with individuals/companies accused of pushing an agenda too far or not enough.

A fantastic example of how a seemingly innocuous comment from a communicator can quickly cause a major headache for a company is the recent Total War Rome II furore. For those who are unaware of the argument (of which I’m sure there will be many) Total War Rome II is an historically-based videogame which allows players to act as one of the major powers of the Greco-Roman world, and effectively create an alternate history. A recent update to the game (some five years after it was first released), introduced female generals to some of the different factions (think tribes, cities etc). This was a pretty unremarkable change, intended to allow players to effectively role-play as famous female characters from history, such as Boudicca or Cleopatra. Whilst some of the game’s community grumbled, the issue only really kicked-off when a community manager from the Creative Assembly (who make the game) locked a forum discussing the change with the words, “As has been said previously: Total War games are historically authentic, not historically accurate - if having female units upsets you that much you can either mod them out or just not play.”

Without going into the pros of cons of the change, saying just not play to a dedicated community like the one was clearly a mis-step. For some players, the passion they have for these games would rival how avid football fans feel about their teams – imagine being told in response to a complaint about the way your football team is being run that you are welcome to just not watch. Such an inflammatory response would be a communications disaster!

Clearly, communicators and businesses need to take particular consideration when communicating around topics where consumers have strong emotional investment, or where societal tensions/issues can be magnified. Following some simple steps can avoid consumer anger and can ensure that reputation, which can take a time long to build, but be damaged in an instant, is protected.

  • Know your audience - whilst this may seem like an obvious point to make, it is always a surprise how often businesses fundamentally misunderstand who they are trying to communicate with.  The pervasiveness of social media means a mis-judged statement can spread far and quickly. Having a good understanding of your audience is vital to avoid self-inflicted controversies in the future.
  • Understand the media landscape – As has been discussed by many, social media has effectively led to the rise of the “citizen journalist”. Anyone with a phone and an internet connection can quickly create and distribute news – businesses need to always be aware that anything shared online can be found and disseminated, and as such should be cautious and considered in these communications.
  • Be aware of how toxic social media trends can exacerbate a situation – The ongoing “culture wars” which engulf much of the Western world’s social media communications should not be ignored by businesses. Any foray into this territory (whether accidental or otherwise) can quickly exacerbate what may have seemed like an innocuous communication, risking hard-won reputation.
  • Have back-up plans in place to manage issues - Whilst the above example may not rank as a full-blown crisis for Creative Assembly, it is still vital that companies have detailed back-up plans in place to mitigate the reputational damage any crisis can cause. These back-up plans should not only include specific internal and external communications that can be tailored to the audience, but also trained spokespeople who can quickly adapt to any difficult questions asked. Consistency of message is also key – all spokespeople need to be “reading from the same script”, as any confusion can quickly anger an already febrile atmosphere.

As is often the case, the outcome of communicating with an emotional audience often comes down to communicators possessing and acting with emotional intelligence. Whilst the temptation to wade into the culture wars and act virtuous is high, brands must always remember – for every success like Nike, there is a high-profile flop like Pepsi.


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