When trolls attack: Decoding the brand & ambassador’s role during a Social Media Crisis

Fortune Oil

With Fortune Oil and its brand ambassador Sourav Ganguly being the latest ones to fall prey to a social media crisis, we speak to experts on what should be a brand’s apt action plan to tackle such situations.

Social Media crisis has been the norm of the ad world in the last few months. We witnessed the Tanishq controversy in the year that was and the new year saw Adani Wilmar’s flagship cooking oil brand Fortune Oil getting widely trolled after its brand ambassador Sourav Ganguly suffered a minor cardiac arrest.  The trolls mainly targetted the brand, for the ambassador suffered a heart attack after touting the product’s health benefits. In such unfortunate circumstances- who’s to blame or not to blame What should be the brand’s ideal crisis response plan? We find out.

Following the criticism online, Fortune Rice Bran cooking oil pulled out ads featuring  Sourav Ganguly. However, the latest reports suggest that Adani Wilmar will continue to work with the former Indian cricket captain as their brand ambassador and is also likely to embark on reinforcing the oil’s health benefits in its campaign.

But in such a situation, where brands and brand ambassadors deal with many sociopolitical sensitivities, what should be the action plan in case of a backfire?

Social Media Crisis – The Right Move

Constant trolling and criticism highlighting the irony of the situation led Fortune Cooking Oil to remove the ads promoted by Ganguly on social media. But is it the right move?

“The brand should just stay quiet. There is no need for a pull out of the creative for now,” opines Harish Bijoor, Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. “Its time to show solidarity and support to Saurav in his current condition. Yes, you might want to reduce brand pressure in terms of the exposures planned. This is a dilemma of health and healthy communication for the Adani Wilmar brand.”

Echoing similar views, Ambi Parameswaran, Brand Strategist/ Founder- Brand Building says that brands should not get into a Twitter fight with the trolls and it is best to stay quiet.

He adds, “You cannot even make a joke about the health of such a revered celebrity. It was unfortunate for Fortune that such a admired, physically fit cricketer has a heart attack. But these things happen. Accenture that stands for ’Trusted Partner’ had a similar fiasco when its endorser Tiger Woods had a trust meltdown with his wife.

The brand’s move of suspending the advertisement enables the brand to reduce the noise around it in media and then re-craft the message once the celebrity is past this situation. Given that this is a situation of the heart, it has to be dealt with by heart. Hence, Harshil Karia, Founder Schbang thinks that the brand’s move of suspending the advertisement and not dropping the celebrity while respecting their sentiments, while understanding that treatment is undergone due to a lot of reasons, and allowing a room for redemption is commendable. 

On the other hand, Business Strategist Lloyd Mathias thinks that the brand had no choice other than pulling down the current campaign. It makes sense because now running a campaign with Sourav talking about health would be inappropriate.

However, what they do in the next fortnight or even a month is to be seen. He notes, “They could possibly do something about wishing him well or hoping that he has a speedy recovery. Depending on the agency which is Ogilvy  – they could devise a response plan- also putting a halt on the campaign is understandable. With time how they devise a new story around this is what will determine how it works.”

On the other hand, Viraj Sheth, Cofounder, and CEO, Monk Entertainment feels that from a brand perspective, taking down the video immediately or removing the endorser or the said celebrity from all hoardings and endorsements would be a very negative move that would just validate the claim that is being made by people.

If Sheth was a brand manager or the communications head, he would have put out clarification about how the said product possibly has nothing to do with the condition that the celebrity is going through or just stick his stance with having the said endorser as part of the company’s endorsements.

The Crisis Response Plan

In a situation as above, according to Ambika Sharma, Founder & MD, Pulp Strategy, being associated with “health and nutrition” the brand can chalk out a longer-term strategy on contributing to the ambassador’s health recovery, working with doctors and nutritionists to enable a roadmap and educating the public on healthy nutrition habits during recovery.

There are many legs to such an approach, it however cannot be tactical but must home itself into the brand’s communication moving forward. The Agency has an important role to play, speed, agility, and quickness in terms of response. “As the situation evolves it’s the agency’s responsibility to be able to own and evolve the narrative and have the preparedness to address the sentiment shift positively,” she says.

Parameswaran opines, “Dropping the face of the cricketer is one way of minimizing the damage. But they should stay silent till the news cycle changes. Then come back with an emotional campaign. There is already a good playbook adopted by Maggi a few years ago.”

Brands have to be ultra careful in this much polarised atmosphere on various issues that can create a social media crisis, feels Mathias. The brand still need to ensure that they are reaching out to the audience in an appropriate ways. “Being ultra careful doesn’t mean that the brand has to be completely silent. If there are issues that are affecting their customers or are important, I think brand should not be afraid to speak out and reach out to its consumers,” he adds.  

Sheth feels the ideal social media response to any major *XX* action from a trolling perspective should be to not have any response, to wait on it, to observe the situation and then take a  decision. Usually, to let a day or two pass and that’s when the trolling or the hating stops and to then put out a clear statement if Fortune Foods is very confident about the fact that the quality and the quantity of the content of their products do not harm one’s health.

“in the future communication as well, put out a disclaimer or a notice that if there’s a certain kind of patient, if you are high on cholesterol etc., you need to consume these foods in the right amounts of quantity, just take a call accordingly instead of taking down the endorsers content pieces or videos,” he adds.

Sharing his views on the topic in a Twitter thread, Communications Consultant Karthik Srinivasan, observes that the Ganguly ads are on the brand’s own website and social channels. Removing them was the first step. “Build a larger narrative around the causes of heart attack in the 40s that do not directly correlate it to oil consumption alone (this goes against their own reductive advertising, but is necessary in the current context), including stress (BCCI!!), lifestyle, etc.,” he tweeted.

About 20 years back, it was possible for the advertisement to go off air, escape the public memory and thus enable the situation to die out. In current times, that is not the case. As on social media, as people talk about issues consistently and this was an issue that came to the forefront because people started trolling Fortune.

Karia notes that here, we do see a potential option of making a statement, which is what the brand did. They made a statement of the heart, in the public eye, but they should move ahead and also push this message in the digital space as well.

“While their belief in the product stands strong, they are going to bounce back stronger while the celebrity will continue using their product and continue to have a healthy heart. An empathy-based messaging with a bit of smartness can shut down the trolls and that is a strategy that an agency can employ.,” he comments.

Also Read: #InDepth Pulse Polio awareness or Downloads for CRED – Why celebrity endorsements work on about everything?

Accurate Dealing Practise

There are situations where the brand comes into the spotlight for a mishap, but it is important to understand that this particular situation is a health crisis and the ambassador is not at fault. In such a situation, according to Sharma, a brand should ideally stand behind the ambassador in addition to taking control of the narrative.

However, in this specific incident, Mathias thinks, it’s unfair to blame Ganguly or anyone concerned because the brand chose to rope in a very well-known spokesperson, known for a healthy lifestyle.

In the past, the advertisement made by Tanishq was also pulled down by them as an act of solemn protest with the statement that the advertisement was not meant for a country like India. “The brands are smart and they are playing their role well and with dignity. These well-known brands from established houses are taking dignified stances, and kudos to them for doing that. In this particular case, the brand had an opportunity doing some smart ORM as well, although playing with empathy and heart, has made their PR discussion come across as strong, says Karia.

In an era where the brand and the ambassador are one unit, it is even more imperative for the two to come together for a contingency plan.

Sharma briefs that for a strong brand with consistent communication and an engaged community, a few days of trolling is a bump in the road (a reference to the current context). This very same situation if handled well and gracefully could become a best practice case study.

Brands are a very important element of shaping culture just like cinema. What they say, people tend to believe. Mathias thinks they have to be very careful about the issues that they stand for and stick by them.

In August 2019, when a customer canceled his order on Zomato basis the religion of the delivery vendor, the former responded by taking a stand for their rider. While the company did face backlash, the decision to stick to their guns was exhibited by the brand and their CEO.

According to Mathias, Brands do not have to be totally silent or neutral. “There will be controversies in this new world where everyone has a social media account and is able to broadcast their views freely – that is bound to happen. But that should not prevent brands from taking an appropriate brand. They should go ahead and do what’s right for their target consumer. Controversies are part and parcel and they have to learn to kind of take it on the chin,” he signs off.