Fightin’ Words: Coaching Small Business Crisis Communications in a Divided Nation

Crisis Communications in a Divided Nation

U.S. small business owners are very much embedded in their communities, and connected with their customers. But many forget that customers can become adversaries when politics become part of the brand conversation. In a politically-divided nation, business owners need to be aware of the risks in attaching brands and businesses to political views.

So Many Red Hens, So Much Anger

When the on-duty manager of a Lexington, VA restaurant called The Red Hen asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave because multiple employees were unhappy about having to serve her, the backlash was speedy and fueled by un-presidential tweeting from the White House. This led to other same-named establishments being caught up in the backlash, from New Jersey to Connecticut to Ontario, Canada. They were reviled on social media, but angry pro-Trump supporters also spewed vitriol on review sites like Yelp! Many received obscenity-laced phone calls, and a few reported death threats. 

Meanwhile, back in Rockbridge County, VA, the Rockbridge Regional Tourism office was bombarded by negative phone calls, emails and letters claiming “we’ll never come back to your area.” If one of your clients suffered a similar fate, how would you advise them?

Smaller agencies are uniquely situated to guide small business owners through the political minefield of brand activism. Many small business owners see nothing wrong with voicing their opinions about the political scene on social media, or supporting causes and candidates. While that can lend authenticity to a small business brand, failing to separate owners’ personal views from business communications may leave businesses vulnerable to a sharp and unpleasant reaction from customers who disagree. Given the USA’s barbed political divide, any small business can find itself before a firing squad of irate individuals offended by the business owner’s expressed opinions, political activism or even innocent remarks.

Rockbridge did not sit out the crisis in hopes people would forget. They drew $5,000 from their emergency funds, conducted perception surveys, and used their findings to steer marketing and messaging with a focus on Lexington. Doing nothing was simply not an option. But many small businesses in a similar crisis would have difficulty seeing their way forward.

As the Presidential election year begins, with the added incitement of impeachment proceedings, expect political divisions and partisan ire to create an even more risky environment for brands. But there is an agency silver lining: we see a potential profit center or community teaching opportunity for small agencies. Why not consider assembling a small business owner “Brand Insurance Kit”?

Brand Insurance Kit

Here’s what we think this small business crisis communication packet would consist of:

  • A compact training course in understanding your brand values; how to weigh the risks/costs associated with brand activism; and steps for responding if activism incites a backlash.
  • Templates for responding to online and social backlash – finding the right words and tone with which to interact with angry customers and the public
  • Case studies of how brands appropriately honor core values while dealing with customer backlash
  • Access to agency content about brand messaging vs. individual beliefs, and how to build a supportive community around a small business brand (in exchange for email sign-up)
  • How to write a press release or make a spokesperson video, and how to distribute them.


Offer the training course as a lunch-and-learn class for a moderate fee, with a packet of extras as a takeaway… and an offer of additional consulting should the business meet problems they need assistance with. Send nice invites; be sure to include a few prospects you might like to establish relationships with. Record the lunch-and learn, and you’ll be able to offer it online as a podcast, video, or self-serve webinar. Share clips of the video on social media to cross-promote… and gather more leads. 

This is a neat project for younger agency employees, and a chance to showcase your PR people as well as for them to mentor your less-PR-savvy team members. It also could be a nice community outreach vehicle for your agency. Make it look high-end and give it some meaty content. 

Support the training with related “expert” content that highlights your crisis communications credentials and knowledge, as well as your understanding of brand values and communications.

In every crisis there is an opportunity. Smaller agencies can position to consult, instruct… and maybe gain some good ongoing client relationships. Lemons to lemonade, people.


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