Don’t block the news: Tips to balance brand safety and corporate responsibility

Advertisers have a corporate social responsibility to find a way to balance their need to protect the brand with support of news sites, particularly in times of crisis.

“Don’t block the news.” This is the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) passionate appeal to advertisers during the COVID-19 crisis. As the IAB knows, during a crisis an advertiser’s top priority is to retreat and protect the brand. No brand wants their name associated with tragedy and bad news and that means news sites are often on the chopping block. 

Brands that keep their campaigns running on news sites risk bad publicity, upset customers, and reduced campaign performance. Imagine an ad featuring large gatherings alongside an article about mandatory quarantines. The damage done if a brand is caught in a public relations firestorm can be difficult, if not impossible, to repair. It should seem obvious that blocking the news is the right choice for advertisers. But it’s not that simple.

During a crisis, access to quality information is critical. News organizations struggling to keep the lights on as advertisers flee their properties can have a major effect on the ability of authorities to get health information to the public. And once the crisis ends, reduced functionality of the fourth estate (journalism) can damage critical institutions for years to come. The collective impact of advertisers protecting themselves could ultimately do more harm than good.

Advertisers have a corporate social responsibility (CSR) to find a way to balance their need to protect the brand with support of news sites, particularly in times of crisis. Thankfully, there are a few ways that brands can do both.

1. Segment new campaigns and dedicate specific budgets to this effort

With any CSR effort, it’s important to fully understand how much your brand is investing in this effort. Expect that these campaigns may not achieve the same results as the rest of your marketing efforts. You don’t want to make decisions about your overall program performance that are biased by the impact of investing in news sites. It might even make sense to create campaigns targeting specific sites that you believe are of the highest value. Creating unique budgets for each news site will allow you to adjust the effect of your effort on the greatest social need.

Isolating this effort allows you to cast the widest net possible while still reviewing your domain reports to ensure you’re not putting money in support of misinformation. Review the reports for these campaigns daily and aggressively remove bad actors. You can also consider, as the IAB recommends, limiting your risk by picking a list of 50-100 news sites that you want to directly support. This would require much more effort and could unintentionally hurt smaller local press.

2. Use brand-safe creative and messaging

Rather than simply running existing creative, you can avoid dangerous messaging clashes by running brand-safe creative. The easiest way to do this is to create a simple static banner with messaging directly calling out what your brand is trying to do. Encourage those who are served your ad to follow the advice of health officials or educate them on other ways that your company is helping. Use this as an opportunity to showcase the human side of your brand—but try to avoid the appearance of taking advantage of a crisis for publicity. Keep your messaging positive and simple.

3. Consider directing traffic to more organizations that are helping the cause

If you want to go one step further, consider using your media dollars to directly help public health organizations. Rather than running creatives for your own organization, consider donating that money to drive awareness or activism for an organization that you believe is helping. Investing in advertising for a nonprofit can sometimes have an even greater impact than just donating that same money directly. Putting your marketing experience and dollars behind helping these organizations while also helping inform the public can have a major impact.

The one thing that is certain about this crisis is that one day it will end. Over time, life will return to normal and we will get back to conducting business as usual. These are exceptional times and require companies to make some exceptional choices in the interest of the public good. The impression that brands leave on consumers will last long beyond the impact of COVID-19 and the decisions we make now will inform that impression for good or ill. 


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Kris Belau is Vice President of Digital Marketing at global digital marketing agency Firewood. He has managed over $200 million in digital spend for B2B and B2C global organizations and helps clients obtain exceptional results through detailed planning, execution, and optimization. Kris possesses extensive experience working across search, display and video, and specializes in media planning, digital strategy, video advertising, and web analytics.

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