Virtue signaling: What a Twitter bot can teach brands about social media

This International Women’s Day (March 8), the Happy International Women’s Day! posts rolled out on social media as usual—but this time, a Twitter bot called their bluff.

Known as the Gender Pay Gap Bot, the Twitter account retweeted brands posting about International Women’s Day, accompanied by the company’s gender pay disparity.

The results proved darkly humorous for onlookers, and terrifying for brand and social media managers, as the Gender Pay Gap Bot set the record straight. The bot flagged a 44.1 percent discrepancy between the hourly pay of men and women at one organization and 31.4 percent at another. Oh the hypocrisy!

The Gender Pay Gap Bot sparked a broader conversation around brand virtue signaling on social media. Many brands want to promote their values and show support for social and cultural issues, yet they deal with an online public that is highly informed, inundated with bad news, and largely skeptical of corporate messaging.

So, the challenge brand and social managers face is this: how can we talk about our values and show our support for social and cultural issues without virtue signaling?

Firstly, what is virtue signaling?

Virtue signaling happens when a person (or a brand) speaks publicly about their values without taking action to support them.

Virtue signaling arises, not when you speak about your brand’s values, but when what you say and how you act do not align.

When thinking about your brand values or weighing in on a topical issue, ask yourself these five questions:

1. Can you back it up?

If you plan to post about something your brand claims to value, don’t make an empty statement. Do your research, find out what you do (or don’t do) at your company, and back up a values-driven post by providing details about what you do. For best results, writers and content managers need access to the right information, as well as open communication channels with decision-makers.

As an example, if you post on International Women’s Day, try speaking openly about what your company does to promote more women into leadership positions. No company is perfect but demonstrating that you work to change things means infinitely more to your audience than taking no action, or simply ignoring internal problems while capitalizing on the opportunity to post.

Hint: if you can’t back up what you say at all, reconsider what you post.

2. Are you preaching or discussing?

Social media is a conversation, not a billboard. Show your support and initiative without claiming the moral high ground or even having to post about it.

Engage with other related accounts by resharing their posts, joining the comment thread, and giving them a like where you can. As a brand (particularly one with a large following) your engagement has the power to make a real difference to smaller social media accounts and interacting in this way is much less likely to be considered virtue signaling. Just make sure you’re adding value, and not just talking about we, we, we!

3. Can you turn the spotlight elsewhere?

Every post on social media is a form of promotion. So here’s an idea: rather than simply scheduling a post from the company account and calling it a day, consider using your platform and reach to highlight other people and organizations.

For example, if it’s on International Women’s Day, invite women of colour to take over your social media for the day, or promote a list of women in your industry to follow.

4. Do you know when to stay silent?

Even if you decided not to weigh in on a certain topic or world event, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should continue with business as usual. Depending on the situation, you may see value in pausing your scheduled content and comms, as many brands opted to do recently during the initial stages of the Ukraine crisis. This silence is one way to show your respect and concern for an issue without drawing attention to your brand.

5. Do you know why you’re saying it?

We encourage brands to celebrate their values, speak up on important issues, and of course participate in significant cultural occasions like International Women’s Day. In fact, brand support for these kinds of issues can achieve powerful outcomes, such as swaying public opinion, educating the marketplace, and influencing policy.

But we encourage you to think very carefully about what you post, how you say it, and most importantly, why you say it. Are you just in need of content, or looking for brownie points? The best values-driven posts combine substance, authority, and a sense of purpose.


A final word on virtue signaling

At PACT, we believe brands should be proud to speak of their values. The internet is home to many voices and opinions, and despite the trouble that it brings, this freedom is, on the whole, a good thing.
Marketing managers, brand managers and social media managers need to carefully consider why and how they talk about their brand values, weigh in on world issues, and celebrate cultural moments.

And at the end of the day, the best thing you can do has nothing to do with social media and everything to do with pushing for your company to do something about the values they want to be known for. Not every brand can be Red Cross, but every company can play their part.

Question? Call Us at 416-476-3554