This year’s divided electorate and disputed election results present a PR dilemma to brands over what’s usually a routine affair.

Should companies and corporate leadership congratulate Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris for their election victory?

Difficult Choices

Congratulating Biden could irritate conservative Republican customers and the current Trump Administration, especially when Trump and his supporters claim voter fraud and refuse to concede. Remaining silent could offend liberal Democrats and officials of the incoming Biden Administration, a particularly worrisome risk for those in highly regulated industries. In addition, corporate communications teams worry about creating the appearance of exploiting the election to sell products.

“This is a profoundly strange moment for the country and it puts companies in a really difficult position,” Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, told Crain’s.

Automakers promptly congratulated Biden, probably hoping to get on the good side of the future administration, Crain’s reports. After some auto companies spoke out, others followed, worried that silence could be misinterpreted.

Some brands remained silent or issued low-key responses on social media. Others, such as Bumble, ClassPass and music venue Brooklyn Bowl, focused their messaging on Harris, congratulating her for becoming the first female and black vice president, according to AdAge.

Some brands congratulated Biden and Harris more enthusiastically than others and criticized Trump’s refusal to concede. Ben & Jerry’s blasted President Trump on Twitter and in a blog post that urged voters to hold Biden accountable for “creating a new, more just and equitable normal and living up to the highest ideals of the democracy we voted for.”

No Time for Unity

Twitter users mocked Gap for posting an image of a red and blue Gap hoodie and urging unity.  The post stated: “The one thing we know, is that together, we can move forward.” Twitter users accused the brand of being out of touch and exploiting the election to push its products. The Gap then promptly deleted the tweet, saying the sweatshirt was not a product for sale.

Gap PR reps sent the media the statement: “The intention of our social media post, that featured a red and blue hoodie, was to show the power of unity. It was just too soon for this message. We remain optimistic that our country will come together to drive positive change for all.”

Taking Actions Privately

Companies can take both private and public action, says Mary Ann O’Brien, CEO and founder of communications agency OBI creative. They can issue subdued public statements, or none at all, yet privately lobby Trump aides and allies to urge the president to accept the results and concede gracefully.

Companies can also publicly congratulate the electorate on the massive turnout.  The election was a potent exercise of democracy, especially in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses can certainly express their thanks to the massive number of election monitors and workers who sought to assure a fair election.

Bottom Line: Companies treaded through a public relations minefield as they considered congratulating Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for winning the election. Issuing a statement or remaining silent risked annoying one side or the other.

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