How to respond in the US when your brand comes under political attack

Jan 14, 2021

While the American election is finally over, one company is still monitoring for potential damage after being caught up in false allegations of voting fraud.

Before the election, hardly anyone had heard of Dominion Voting Systems, and the company probably preferred it that way as its customers are government agencies and they had no real public profile.

However, as Donald Trump began to lose, the company faced a barrage of politically motivated falsehoods that their voting machines could be manipulated to switch votes from one candidate to another, and that the company is somehow linked to dark foreign influences. It was a classic crisis scenario and the company’s response provides a lesson in how to respond when your brand comes under attack.

The company’s statements to the media – also posted on its website – are a masterclass in clear, jargon-free, Q&A communication set out in a perfect “just the facts ma’am” Dragnet style.

• Dominion Voting Systems is a non-partisan American company started in Canada and later incorporated in the United States.
• It has no ties or company ownership relationships with the Pelosi family, Feinstein family, Clinton family, George Soros, or any ties to the governments of China, Venezuela or Cuba.
• It is technologically impossible to “see” votes being counted in real-time and/or to “flip” them.
• All baseless claims have been debunked by election officials, subject matter experts and third-party fact-checkers.

Although the President was gleefully leading the charge – consider the Bloomberg headline “Trump Lashes Voting Tech Firm With Barrage of Debunked Claims” – the company statements carefully avoided naming any elected official.

As the allegations continued, Dominion threatened defamation proceedings against White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, rogue lawyer Sidney Powell and conservative cable news channels Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News. This week the company said action against Powell was “imminent” but notably declined to say whether it would proceed against Trump himself.

Meantime, Dominion’s Security Director, Eric Coomer, has launched independent personal defamation proceedings against Trump’s campaign, two of its lawyers and a number of conservative commentators and media outlets. In addition, election voting software company Smartmatic – another target of groundless political allegations – threatened legal action against Fox and Newsmax and One America News.

Threats of defamation in the midst of an organisational crisis seldom carry much weight. But by no coincidence at all, Fox and Newsmax promptly back-tracked. Fox featured a segment with an election expert confirming there is “no concrete evidence that Dominion or Smartmatic played any part in voter fraud”, and Newsmax tried to defend itself by pleading that while various guests had made allegations, the network itself “never made a claim of impropriety”.

Although Dominion is a B2B operation, this is very clearly a widespread reputational crisis. Its voting machines were used in 28 states during the election, and false claims against the integrity of the equipment are highly damaging. The company’s customers are not the public, yet misinformed public opinion could likely influence any government official in the future making decisions about what voting machines to purchase.

Some health and environmental activist groups long ago perfected what I call the “black cloud strategy” – where you deliberately launch a sustained stream of allegations against a product or a project, without any need for proof, until your target gets labelled as “controversial”, and regulators and customers have no choice but to start paying attention.

That’s the situation Dominion finds itself in, and only time can tell whether their response will be sufficient to preserve the brand.

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