In case you haven’t been following along, a quick recap: In January, Britney Spears announced the cancellation of her upcoming Las Vegas residency, Domination. She then abruptly disappeared from the public eye.
Then, a few weeks ago, the legendary singer released a statement saying she was in the process of seeking in-patient mental health treatment. Or did she? (More on that below.)
Her residency cancellation, disappearance from the public eye, and sordid history of being under a strict legal conservatorship has led some fans to question the singer’s well-being and the “real” reasons behind her vanishing.
In turn, these questions have led to a full-viral moment in pop culture—#FreeBritney.
As I (curiously and obsessively) watch the story unfold, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the PR lessons brands and organizations could learn from this event, which are shared below.
Lesson 1: If you have social channels, use them.
The main tell that there was something amiss in the world of Britney? A lack of Instagram posts.
A normally prolific poster, her lack of content is what raised the red flags for two of Spears’ most dedicated “stans”—Britney’s Gram podcast hosts Tess Barker and Barbara Gray—and triggered what would escalate to become the #FreeBritney movement.
For brands, the lesson is this: While it may seem like having a presence on social media is digital table stakes, those channels need to be updated with a steady stream of content. When it comes to social media, what you’re not saying—or posting—can be every bit as telling as what you are.
Lesson 2: If you don’t control your narrative, someone else will.
For Britney, her lack of communication around her treatment, whereabouts, and general situation has led to rampant speculation. Given her well-documented legal situation, very public struggles with mental health in the past, and out-of-character behaviour (see Lesson 1), many fans were left to draw their own conclusions about her situation.
In other words, the lack of narrative has led to lots of space for people to speculate. If you don’t get in front of the message, others will, and your audiences will form their own opinions which can be damaging for your brand or organization’s reputation.
Lesson 3: Voice and tone matter.
Britney fans were quick to analyze an Instagram post announcing she had entered mental health treatment earlier this year because it wasn’t quite “on brand”. The main tell? Her use—or rather lack thereof, in this case—of emojis. Take a scroll through the singer’s other posts and you’ll notice her fondness for emojis. Her announcement post? It simply included an old-school “: )” smiley. A small detail, but enough of a shift in voice to cause people to question the credibility of the statement.
Branding goes beyond just corporate colours and imagery. We experience the online world—for the most part—through written interactions. Ensuring a consistent voice throughout every touch point is crucial to presenting a unified image and cohesive brand.
Lesson 4: Be responsive.
As of publication, Team Britney has sprung into action by posting a series of videos, photos, and other updates on social media prominently featuring the singer. In the posts, she addresses fan concerns and offers reassurance about her situation. She also asks for space while she takes time to focus on her mental health.
This was an effective move. Left unaddressed, fan concerns and speculation would have continued to gain momentum. And though there will continue to be lots of analysis on what was said, the singer’s appearance, and what’s “really” going on, it was important to be responsive and address the issue head-on, even if the timing is less than ideal.
For organizations, crisis and tough situations don’t stop just because the work day does. It’s important to respond when necessary and appropriate—even if that means after hours, over the weekend, or on a holiday. Being prepared to respond in a timely manner often means being willing to put in some extra hours.
Lesson 5: Know when to call in the big guns.
That same message delivered by a spokesperson or representative would have only added fuel to the speculation fire. Despite being in treatment, Team Britney made the right call by having the star deliver the message herself.
In times of crisis or other unusual circumstances, who delivers the message can be every bit as important as what’s being said.
Spears has a history of going through very private struggles in a very public way. As a stan, it’s been hard to watch everything unfold and something tells me there’s still lots of story left to tell.
And if you’re a brand or organization that finds yourself in a tough situation, the team at NATIONAL is trained in rapid response to tough situations. And though it’s never ideal to be in a challenging situation, having the right team behind you can make a real difference.