Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Boycotts . . . When Are They Real Crisis Management Threats?

Every week I review various boycott threat E-mails and comments, helping clients decide whether to take these issues seriously or not. Whenever a boycott is threatened, I always ask six diagnostic questions:
  1. Are customers mentioning it as they come-in or cancel their orders, reservations, appointments, or activities?
  2. Is this the subject of conversation among franchisees, related businesses, allies, partners, or employees and their families?
  3. Is there chatter, at any level, about it on the Web, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, or in chat rooms?
  4. Have the bloviators, bellyachers, back bench complainers, or cable news fabricators been mentioning it more frequently?
  5. Has there been an unexplained blip, positive or negative, in sales, reservations, orders, appointments, or collaboration requests?
  6. Does it have or can it gain traction on college campuses? Is there some indication of independent sources of energy and focus, such as labor unions, religious organizations, or national activist organizations (e.g., ACORN and SAFE)?

If even one of these situations is happening, I would take the circumstance more seriously and begin to plan a response. Until one of these five questions gets a “yes,” the odds are that the boycott is just puff.

A little about boycotts:

  • They rarely work unless the issue is so inflammatory or so obviously dangerous that a substantial number of people will alter their personal lives to participate.
  • Very few people, anywhere in the world, get up in the morning and decide what they’re not going to do today.
  • Truly successful boycotts are rare, but one current example is bottled water. Another less current example is activism against sweatshops and labor abuse. Among the current activist movements are several against major food producing companies, like McDonald's and Subway, on the issue of worker slavery, obscenely low wages, and abuse of farm workers.
  • For boycotts to be successful, proponents need: (1) a substantive, overwhelmingly compelling issue; (2) a substantially sympathetic audience; (3) younger people or active constituencies for such causes as unions or religion, or some attraction on the college campus circuit; and most importantly, (4) there must be a target organization or industry that deserves to be singled out for punishment. People have to be angry, frightened, or vengeful.
  • The most recent successful boycotts have been spontaneous and self-imposed, health focused, and usually against the foods we eat such as lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, peanut butter, asparagus, and ground beef - all due to fear of bacterial contamination.
  • Most boycott attempts appear to be random political or highly emotional maneuvers, rarely well orchestrated, and therefore far less likely to succeed.

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