Instagram emerges as an advocacy platform in the Chick-fil-a controversy2012-08-01
In a tweet earlier today, Southeastern University PR professor Barbara Nixon pointed out that more than 50,000 images turned up on Instagram bearing the hashtag #chickfila. By the time I looked a few hours later, that number had surged to more than 62,500. (I grabbed the image at left a short time before I last checked.)
Fascinated by this, I searched for any commentary by news organizations or the blogosphere about the phenomenon. I found nothing. The use of visual imagery to convey an idea is a trend communicators can’t ignore, and you’ll find plenty of posts and articles about using Instagram and Pinterest for marketing, including cause-related marketing. But this grass-roots sharing of images in support of or opposition to the fast-food franchise seems to have escaped attention.
That’s too bad, since organizations in crisis—and their opponents—are all free to inspire hashtag-based image sharing. NH Hotels is one of a growing number of companies that have succesfully taken to visual marketing via hashtag, asking guests to share photos of their early mornings with the accompanying #wakeuppics tag.
Chick-fil-a, under siege after its founder and president voiced vocal opposition to same-sex marriage, has amassed an army of supporters even as critics have mounted boycott campaigns in a host of social channels. Instagram, though, based on my review of images shared under the hashtag, has been used mainly by supporters.
No, I didn’t scroll through 62,000-some-odd images to reach that conclusion, but it makes sense. It’s easy to take and share a picture of yourself at a Chick-fil-a restaurant. It’s not so easy to share an image of yourself boycotting the restaurant. What are you going to do, share a photo of you and your friends on the couch playing XBox? “Here we are not eating at Chick-fil-a.” It wouldn’t even occur to most critics to find a visual way to show themselves not eating at the chain, while supporters most likely can’t wait to post that photo with their friends happily munching a chicken sandwich with the chain’s logo displayed prominently behind them.
There are the inevitable photoshopped marketing graphics, such as the competing takes on the issue below, but even with these the pro-Chick forces seem to have overwhelmed the anti-Chick critics.
In addition to the #chickfila hashtag, Instagram offers up a number of related tags, including #chickfilaappreciationday (795 photos as I write this), #chickfiladay (523) and #chickfilaappreciation (93). Meanwhile, #chickfilaproblems, #chickfilasucks and #chickfilaprobz have been attached to fewer than 50 images each.
Companies under siege (whether or not they deserve to be) should be paying attention. Unlike web-based photo-sharing services like Flickr, Instagram is almost purely mobile. While you can see one of my shared Instagram images on Twitter or Facebook (because I’ve linked my accounts), to see all my images, you need to use a phone or tablet, or a third-party site like Gramfeed or Instagrid. There is some speculation that Instagram will change that model at some point and develop a web presence. For now, though, it’s used by people with a few minutes to kill who happily scroll through the latest shared images in reverse chronological order. If your friends are Chick-fil-a supporters, you’ll see the photos they’ve shared. And if Chick-filaA promotes the use of the hashtag among its supporters, that’s a trigger to motivate those friends to shoot those pictures.
It’s equally strategic to decide the grass-roots effort is doing just fine without your intervention, and just point to those 62,000-plus images as a symbol of the support that’s lined up behind you.
Dan York is right when he argues that images alone don’t make a content strategy. But they can represent an important part of a larger strategy, and the outpouring of support for the besieged chicken chain on Instagram is one example of just how it could work.
For those who are inclined to use this post to argue for or against Chick-fil-a’s position on same-sex marriage, save it. This is just a timely case study that could any organization could apply under the right circumstances. Those conditions include…
- Knowing there are visuals your fans can easily find and shoot
- Knowing your critics have fewer opportunities to share their visual opposition to your position
- An existing hashtag already symbolizes support for your position, or
- You have the means to share a hashtag quickly among your supporters
The Chick-fil-a controversy has shown Instagram (and Pinterest, for that matter) to be a forum for political and social advocacy. Have you factored this into the visual communications component of your crisis communication plan?
Incidentally, this controversy was one of the stories covered on This week’s For Immediate Release podcast.