When my wife was in social work school many years ago, she and her classmates learned the art of the positive reframe: helping a therapy client retell their own story to focus on any strengths or advantages that could help them recover.
But the technique had its limits. “Remember,” their prof said, apparently with a straight face, “you must never positively reframe a murder.”
As legendary cartoonist Stan Mack would say, this dialogue (or monologue) is guaranteed verbatim. But before you laugh too loudly, think about how the positive reframe can be used or abused in content marketing.
The Abercrombie Gaffe
Fast forward a few years from Karen’s late-1980s social work class, and we find her co-authoring a daily blog and commenting on a massive corporate gaffe that no amount of content marketing will likely solve. In a weekend post, she recounted the “giant Internet kerfuffle surrounding certain odious statements from Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries.” Jeffries’ 2006 interview Salon was resurrected by Business Insider columnist Ashley Lutz, sparking a wave of online reaction and a change.org petition that picked up nearly 2,500 signatures in its first day online.
“Teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch doesn’t stock XL or XXL sizes in women’s clothing because they don’t want overweight women wearing their brand,” Lutz reported. “Abercrombie is sticking to its guns of conventional beauty, even as that standard becomes outdated.”
Many companies would have taken another route by pivoting deep into spin control mode, grabbing hold of the narrative, and hanging on for dear life. People respond to stories, the crisis management team would anxiously tell themselves, so what’s needed is some decisive bit of happy talk that introduces us to the kinder, gentler Mike Jeffries.
The question is: Would social platforms let marketers get away with it?
The Story Behind the Message
The Mike Jeffries saga is the latest in a flurry of evidence that social media demand a deeper level of honesty, something that goes well beyond the important and legitimate task of crafting the right message. As we keep hearing, and Jeffries may be learning, social platforms really are forever. If an executive is creepy or an industry is greenwashing, no amount of spin will wash it away.
But on rare occasions, I’ve seen what can happen when the optics of a bad decision open up a pro-active conversation about what opponents might be thinking…and those insights lead to a better plan. Many years ago, I sat in on a strategy session where a group of junior marketers was hell-bent on pushing a new product: One of them vowed to go in with his back to the wall and his elbows up, and make sure he was the last one standing.
A senior executive countered that even if the company won, it would lose months or years of production time and devote millions of dollars to the fight, on top of the tens of millions it had already spent on product development. How much smarter would it be, she asked, to talk to people at the outset and invest in products the community would welcome in the first place?
That conversation pointed to the social licence to operate as one of the most pragmatic arguments for listening to customer and community voices—and to content marketers who have a clear understanding of the audiences they’re trying to serve. But to assume the role of trusted advisors, marketers will have to listen more closely, think more critically, and extend their scope beyond finding the right words to explain something that never should have been said or done.