It took Dollar General less than a week to fire Mary Gundel. A store manager in Tampa, Florida Gundel was earning $50,000 a year, according to the New York Times, and had received an award for her hard work and dedication just months earlier.
What moved her from a “Top 5%” Dollar General employee to a Lyft and Uber driver was a series of posts that Gundel made on TikTok.
At the end of March, she changed the content she shared on the social media site. Instead of posting about her hair and her dental surgery, she started to talk about the conditions at Dollar General stores. She explained how the company had cut the number of hours she could allocate to staff which meant she sometimes had to put in 60 hours a week without overtime, and manage the store by herself. The shortages meant that boxes piled up in the aisles because there was no one to unpack them, prompting complaints from customers and increasing dissatisfaction.
The videos went viral, with one video racking up almost two million views.
Employees in other branches soon began weighing in with their own complaints. They too were fed up working shifts alone because the chain wouldn’t pay for more staff, and they too felt unappreciated.
Dollar General responded first by trying to talk with Gundel, reminding her of the company’s social media policies. But within a week of the first video being uploaded, they had fired her. Gundel has since uploaded daily videos from anonymous “elected” staff members in stores across the country who answer questions from other employees.
Inevitably, her campaign has started a hashtag. Because the company’s response to any employee complaint was “put in a ticket,” TikTok users have started adding #putinaticket to their own videos.
That critical hashtag is typical of the kind of campaign that brands face on social media. Comments and complaints that might never have reached further than the staff canteen can now circulate publicly, deepening antagonism towards the brand among customers and reinforcing conflict between the company and its employees.
Companies have to respond to those hashtag campaigns, but they rarely do it well. Faced with an isolated crisis, such as Gucci’s “blackface sweater,” they can issue an immediate apology and announce the withdrawal of a product. But a rolling, grassroots hashtag campaign that highlights a long-lasting issue is much harder to deal with.
Sometimes, the brand won’t need to handle it alone.
#BreakTheBias – Women Versus Brand Hypocrisy
Each year on International Women’s Day, brands take the opportunity to show how much they support gender equality. They post testimonials from women employees describing the opportunities they enjoy at the company and explain why it’s a great place for women to work. And the brand throws in the hashtags #IWD and #BreakTheBias to make sure that they win attention.
This year, though, each of those posts received an automatic response from a bot called @PayGapApp. The bot, created by social media manager Francesca Lawson and her partner, software consultant Ali Fensome, drew on publicly available data to reply with details of the gender pay gap at that company or institution.
“The bot exists in order to empower employees and members of the public to hold these companies to account for their role in perpetuating inequalities,” Lawson told the New York Times. “It’s no good saying how much you empower women if you have a stinking pay gap.”
The Gender Pay Gap Bot, for example, responded to a post from English Heritage highlighting five “fascinating women from history,” by noting that “In this organisation, women’s median hourly pay is 3.9% lower than men’s.”
That gap is relatively low. Other firms typically suffer from pay gaps as large as almost 40 percent. Some reached 70 percent.
The response from many companies was often to slink away. Some brands deleted their posts rather than have their hypocrisy attached to their attempt at virtue-signaling. Others tried to block the bot, which left both their own tweet and the response on the bot’s account.
Some organizations though, took a smarter approach. English Heritage noted that its 3.9 percent pay gap was based on data from April 2020. The organization has since worked hard to reduce the gap and although they haven’t yet reached parity, it is closing.
It’s an honest response that acknowledges a problem, one that people can see is spread across many organizations, and includes a commitment to improve.
Disney Faces Boycott
At least organizations targeted on International Women’s Day could feel that they had plenty of company as well as an easy solution—even if not all of them were capable of figuring it out. When brands are targeted individually and become involved in the country’s culture wars, avoiding the blows becomes much harder.
Disney’s decision to oppose Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Bill has put it in the crosshairs of conservatives. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor has signed a bill to end the company’s special tax status, while on social media, conservatives have been pushing the hashtag #boycottdisney.
Cancel culture, it seems, is a thing on both sides of the political spectrum.
Disney, though, doesn’t appear to have made any attempt to counter the campaign, nor can it. The company spoke out against the bill only under pressure from employees. Bob Chapek, Disney’s CEO, had told shareholders: “We were opposed to the bill from the outset, but we chose not to take a position on it…because we felt we could be more effective behind the scenes.”
The company is caught between some of its staff and some of its customers.
There’s not much that Disney can do in this situation. Businesses and organizations that depend on one side of the political divide for their support, such as a gun maker or Planned Parenthood, can afford to face boycott hashtags from people who would never support them anyway. Businesses which would prefer to stay away from controversy and court custom from both sides of the political aisle have a bigger problem.
So Disney’s strategy so far has largely been to do nothing. Away from the public eye, the company’s lawyers are no doubt negotiating tax status with Florida, a move that will throw up a number of difficulties for both the state and the company. But on social media, while disgruntled conservatives are pushing hashtags, the company’s accounts are firmly on-message. They’re focused on the opening of parks, new shows on Disney Plus, and events at resorts.
The intent appears to be ride out the storm, to hope that most of the people who watch the Disney Channel or book a vacation at a theme park will have missed a controversy that has largely energized a few people on Twitter.
It’s a strategy that might have worked if one of those energized people wasn’t also the governor of Florida. The drop in share price of Walt Disney Company of about 20 percent during April 2022 is more likely to be down to inflation, higher interest rates, and the loss of a highly valuable tax benefit than a few cancellations.
What Disney’s experience of a hashtag campaign suggests is that what starts on Twitter doesn’t always end on Twitter. Social media might be its own world but when the polarization reflected online also influences what happens offline the result for companies can be both expensive and difficult to avoid.
Disney can at least blame itself for its predicament. The company could have ignored the complaints of its staff and chosen to say nothing about Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Bill. It took action and now has to cope with the consequences of that action.
Other companies are facing hashtag campaigns as a result of inaction.
As governments have placed sanctions on Russia for its war in Ukraine, some western brands have chosen to remain in the country. Coca Cola, McDonalds, Pepsi, and Starbucks are all among large companies that have chosen to continue to do business in Russia, prompting inevitable Twitter hashtags calling on people to “#BoycottMcDonalds #BoycottCocaCola #BoycottKFC #BoycottPepsi #BoycottStarbucks #BoycottBurgerKing.”
Some of the brands have attempted to straddle the fence. Yum Brands, owners of Pizza Hut and KFC, said that it was suspending future investments in Russia and would direct profits from its operations in Russia to humanitarian efforts. Starbucks has described the attack on Ukraine as “unprovoked” and “unjust.”
One problem may be the complexity of the companies’ operations. Kathleen Brooks, director at Minerva Analysis, explained to the BBC’s Today program that Coca-Cola had an “incredibly complicated structure” in Russia.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as saying can you just pull out of Russia,” she said. “These are complicated businesses and there’s a lot to consider, but right now the reputation risk could really hit their share prices so they may have no choice going forward.”
In the meantime, like Disney, the companies are trying to hunker down and hope that the storm passes, and they’ll be able to continue as before once the war ends.
And that seems to be the most common strategy that brands take when faced with a hashtag campaign. Say nothing. Ignore it. Hope that the keyboard warriors grow tired and move on.
It’s a strategy that works until, as Dollar General and Disney discovered, it doesn’t.