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June 10, 2014

Facebook made headlines last week—but not the good kind. The social media giant came under fire from the Syria Campaign, an organization dedicated to a free and peaceful Syria. The Syria Campaign bashed Facebook for allowing the nation’s current president, Bashar al-Assad, to run sponsored posts to promote his re-election campaign. Assad is known for being an all-around terrible human being and has been accused of using chemical weapons against his own people. He is allegedly responsible for the deaths of more than 150,000 people

It’s common for most politicians to use social media on the campaign trail. To wit: Barack Obama currently has about 80 million people in his social community when you combine Facebook and Twitter followings. In the 2012 election, his campaign received high praise for their untraditionally casual use of email subject lines—think: “Join Michelle and me”—which felt more conversational in the evolving digital world. The power of connecting with constituents on social media cannot be undervalued.

However, that gets a little murky when we’re talking about a dictator who has the blood of 150,000 people on his hands.

Wisely, Facebook terminated the ad campaign, claiming that the ads were placed from outside Syria. They said:

“We comply with all relevant Syrian sanctions and do not permit ads originating from or targeting Syria. With over a billion users around the world, Facebook permits freedom of expression and we want to make sure people feel comfortable coming to Facebook to discuss what’s important to them, while making sure we maintain a safe and respectful community.”

Of course: Facebook is not the first brand to get in trouble for aligning—even if it is unintentionally, as Facebook’s representatives explained—with an inappropriate partner.

Many popular brands today—including Hugo Boss, Bayer aspirin and IBM—aligned themselves with the Nazi party during World War II. On a much ligher and more recent note: Twenty-five years ago, Pepsi dropped Madonna from their brand when the singer debuted the highly controversial “Like a Prayer” video, which featured stigmata and burning crosses. More recently you’ll recall that last summer, Paula Deen lost endorsement deals with everyone from Walmart and Target to QVC and Caesars Entertainment after publicly dropping a the N-word.

Of course, there are dozens—possibly even hundreds—more examples of this type of problematic partnership, ranging in severity. But for a brand manager, even a small dilemma can seem like a crisis when it hits close to home.

So: How does a brand know when partnership goes sour?

There are three questions brand managers must ask themselves:

1. Does the action of the partner harm other people? 
Let’s take Syrian president Assad as the example here.
The answer: YES.

2. Is the problem with the partner something that happened after your partnership began?
The Syrian Civil War has been happening since 2011.
The answer: NO.

3. Will ending the relationship be beneficial to your brand in the long run?
There’s no way for Facebook to take money from this campaign without implying that they support the actions of the current Syrian government. Though social media is a place for free speech, we look back at the first question. Assad is causing harm to people. Even as time passes, people will not look back on the relationship positively.
The answer: YES.

If the answer to any—or more pressingly, ALL—of these questions is a resounding yes, then you should consider ending your partnership. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg and the people of the Syria Campaign.

Has your brand ever run into problems with a high-profile partner? Tell us how you handled it! Tweet @Chatterblast.

About the Author

Erica Palan

Erica is ChatterBlast's resident cat lady and the adoptive mother of Banana, our office fish. Her hobbies include reading (quickly), running (slowly) and listening to Bruce Springsteen (loudly).

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