Hung Up In Hannity-Moore Mess, Keurig CEO Deals With Common New Risk For Companies

America’s CEOs are getting twitchy about how their companies should respond to the potent and increasingly poisonous modern brew of politics, social commentary, news and entertainment media – and their brands. Keurig CEO Bob Gamgort is just the latest to have to deal with its bitter taste.

Specifically, Gamgort felt compelled to apologize in a sense for the quick trigger-finger of the coffee brand’s marketing team after it pulled commercials from Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, in the wake of the conservative talker’s defense of increasingly embattled Republican Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore of Alabama.

“We’re in a super-political climate today,” Michael Priem, founder and CEO of Modern Impact, a Minneapolis-based marketing agency, told Chief Executive. “Consumers with their strong opinions understand that. And if they see that advertising dollars fund content with which they don’t agree, they know that companies will react to economic drivers.”

While other media figures and outlets take increasing aim at Moore over several allegations of sexual misconduct a few decades ago, and as he loses support among Republican colleagues as well, Hannity has been unapologetic in maintaining that Moore should enjoy a “presumption of innocence” until investigation of the charges is complete. Hannity also has suggested that the allegations against Moore could be politically or financially motivated.

“We’re in a super-political climate today. Consumers with their strong opinions understand that. And if they see that ad dollars fund content with which they don’t agree, they know companies will react to economic drivers.”

At a time when the entire mediaverse has been put on edge by news of sexual harassment and even rape by a roster of Hollywood and liberal-media glitterati, the allegations against Moore, a celebrated figure in conservatism, make the picture even dicier for brands – and CEOs.

Volvo Car USA, Reddi Wip, Realtor.com, and Nature’s Bounty joined Keurig recently in tweeting that they had pulled ads or were refraining from advertising on Hannity’s show because of his support of Moore. Some of the brands later backed away from those actions.

But Gamgort alone began dealing with another element: a tangible social-media campaign against Keurig’s decision, and calling for a boycott, that was supported by videos and news coverage of owners of Keurig coffee makers smashing their machines to bits in protest.

Gamgort subsequently apologized to employees in a memo obtained by the Washington Post, calling Keurig’s decision to “pause” its advertising with Hannitiy’s show “highly unusual” and “outside of company protocols.”

“This gave the appearance of ‘taking sides’ in an emotionally charged debate that escalated on Twitter and beyond over the weekend, which was not our intent,” Gamgort wrote.

“Clearly, this is an unacceptable situation that requires an overhaul of our issues response and external communications policies and the introduction of safeguards to ensure this never happens again … The nature of social media and the Internet news environment is that stories like this explode, and generally do not disappear quickly.”

But then the quagmire for Keurig only deepened this week as Hannity praised support from his fans but asked them to stop destroying Keurig machines, calling the company a “victim” of a politically progressive media watchdog, Media Matters, that has been calling for a Hannity boycott. On Tuesday, Hannity said that he planned to give away 500 Keurig machines and that he accepted the company’s “apology,” though he didn’t note that it was directed to employees.

Expect the number of such incidents to climb and demand more attention from CEOs.

“What all of these companies need to do right now is publicly articulate what their policies are with respect to advertising, and under what circumstances they would pull their ads from broadcasters,” Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, told the New York Times.

Another alternative: CEOs could pull back their companies and brands from responding in any way to political memes that are fanned by social media. But that horse likely has left the barn.

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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