Careful When You ‘Embrace the Hate’

In an episode of The Simpsons, titled “Simpson Tide” (1998), Homer joins the Naval Reserve (don’t ask). During orientation Homer’s drill sergeant gives him the business. He gets in his grill, and barks, “I don’t like you!”

Homer responds with a sweet smile and puppy dog eyes. “But I like you,” Homer says. The drill sergeant, of course, is miffed, having been neutralized by Homer’s kindness.

It’s Homer’s version of embracing the hate. Now, 17 years later, as social channels explode, embracing the hate may be the next hot messaging strategy in PR and marketing.

I was reminded of Homer’s actions after seeing a Wall Street Journal report late last month that Progressive has started to reach out to Twitter users to ask whether it could use their tweets for a “project” the insurance giant is working on.

However, it seems that Progressive is only interested in integrating tweets that disparage the company’s longtime spokeswoman, Flo, the Journal said. “My idea of a nightmare situation is being force-fed Parmesan bread bites while tied to a chair in Flo’s Progressive Torture chamber,” reads one tweet. Progressive responded by asking for permission to use the tweet and for the user’s email address.

Progressive’s move is in keeping with an accelerating trend in the marketplace: embracing the hate.

With the proliferation of social networks, it’s the rare brand or organization that hasn’t incurred the wrath of consumers upset or perturbed about the company’s behavior or actions. More often that not, tweets or Facebook comments that disparage a brand come from John and Jane Q. Public being snarky because they can. Either way, it’s a hallmark of online communications.

At the outset of social media—when consumers talked smack about a company—some brand managers would first try and determine how much damage the offending comment might cause and then possibly reach out to that individual to try and remedy the situation and mitigate the hate.

That’s one solution. But Progressive and other brands like Dove  may have the right idea. Instead of trying to appease consumers, why not neutralize them?

By recruiting consumers to include their “creative” in a new marketing campaign—no matter how nasty it may be—brands demonstrate a warts-and-all approach. That makes it harder for consumers to express hate and/or get on their soapbox about every little thing.

With that in mind, here are two ways for PR executives to embrace the hate—and possibly add a fresh (and all-too-human) approach to their business communications.

> Be vigilant, yet selective in reaching out. Hate on social media comes in all shapes and sizes. Tap into those tweets and social comments that may be critical of your brand but are delivered in a tongue-firmly-tucked-in-cheek style and show a flair for humor. It’s a pretty fine line between funny and down right malicious. PR managers have to make sure they don’t hurt their brands (or shareholders) with an embrace-the-hate strategy.

> Be transparent about your intentions. When you do reach out to the haters, keep the communication simple. When consumers respond to your message, make sure you clearly spell out how (and where) the tweets will be used and what consumers might get in return. This is probably an area, as good as any, in which PR and legal should work closely. When getting into what is a particularly gray (and nascent) area, you have to be extremely clear about your intentions. You don’t want the haters to get the impression that they are now quasi marketers for the company. Or maybe you do.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1