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As the world watches Donald Trump's inauguration as the 45th president of the United States of America Friday, the markets will be closely listening to his inaugural speech. But it's not only Wall Street that's interested in what he has to say; brands may also be on the lookout for off-the-cuff comments in real life, as well as on social media.
Trump has made Twitter his mouthpiece, and recent tweets have seen him mention Boeing, General Motors, L.L. Bean, and Ford in a mixture of positive and negative messages. Meanwhile, Skittles and New Balance have also found themselves part of political conversations. So how should brands react?
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Responding if someone with as much influence as Trump tweets inaccurately about your brand is a no-brainer, according to Daryl Fielding, a consultant and former marketing director at Kraft Foods Europe (now part of Mondelez International). "He's got 20 million followers, so it's not as though a company could dismiss the impact of that reach, and I think if something is factually incorrect a brand should definitely correct it," she told CNBC by phone.
Have a Plan in Place
Fielding pointed out that large companies are likely to have crisis management plans in place to deal with urgent PR matters, and that they should rely on senior spokespeople with good judgment, such as the chief marketing officer, to respond, rather than delegating it to a social media agency, for example.
"It may be that the right answer is don't respond, because obviously with that reach, an inappropriate answer can only end up creating more impact," she added.
If a company does react to a tweet from an influencer, it should do it carefully, Fielding said, praising Skittles' response to a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., when he likened the candy to refugees, in September 2016.
Parent company Wrigley's response was: "Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don't feel it's an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing."
At the time, mentions of Skittles by people on Twitter soared, according to consultancy Brandwatch in an email to CNBC. It also stated that positive and negative mentions for the brand on the social network were almost evenly split, when it looked at tweets that were "sentiment-categorized".
Find Your Personality
For marketing consultant Rohit Bhargava, brands should create a personality, so that if they do have to respond to wide-reaching comments on social media, they can do so in a way that fits with it.
"If their response is in the same personality as they already have, I think they are in good shape, because what their audience is used to seeing is them responding as if they were real, like a real person," he told CNBC by phone.
Other brands have found themselves involved in a consumer backlash as a result of real-life comments from company spokespeople: New Balance saw people boycott — as well as praise — the brand on Twitter after the sneaker company's vice president of public affairs Matthew LeBretton told the Wall Street Journal in November, "The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction."
Brandwatch data shows that 62.9 percent of sentiment-categorized tweets about New Balance were positive at the time of LeBretton's comments.
Consider the Longer-Term Impact
For Bhargava, brands need also to think about the impact of getting involved in political discussions on company staff.
"For New Balance or any brand, the biggest potential impact, the short-term impact is people are maybe going to return their shoes… but most of the time that's a pretty short-lived thing."
"For me the bigger issue is what it does to employees and potential future employees and how they see the brand… does it make it harder for them to keep the employees that they have?"
Meanwhile, fashion company L.L. Bean also saw itself at the center of a Twitter conversation last week, after Trump tweeted his thanks to board member Linda Bean for a donation, and urged people to buy the brand. Consumer reactions on Twitter were polarized, with almost exactly a 50/50 split between positive and negative mentions, for those that were sentiment-categorized, according to Brandwatch. But getting involved in politics isn't desirable for brands, said Kellan Terry, a senior data analyst at Brandwatch, in an email to CNBC.
"A brand never wants their conversation, whether it be online or otherwise, to become political and polarized."
Skittles, New Balance and L.L. Bean did not immediately respond to CNBC's requests for comment.