When I graduated from college and entered the business world, one of the first pieces of old-school advice my dad gave me was to never talk religion or politics at work functions or dinners. At the time, this was solid advice that was just as important to follow for individuals as for brands and businesses. Why risk taking a stand on an issue that could easily offend the people you are with or the customers you seek? My, have times changed!
Corporate activism has never been more important to get right. In today’s ever-increasingly polarized world, organizations that don’t take a stand on key societal issues risk losing business for not getting their points of view out there. Customers don’t just prefer a business that provides societal benefits for the communities they serve but expect them to be ethical as well. And more often than not, these issues involve politics in one way or another, which is an area that brands historically tried to avoid.
When (and how) did this dramatic shift occur for corporate America?
My first recollection of brands entering the political arena was in 2016, concerning the North Carolina “bathroom bill.” The bill would have denied transgender people the right to use the bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity. Over 100 brands, including Apple, Airbnb, Bank of America, Starbucks, United Airlines, and others, successfully lobbied for its repeal. The NBA even moved the 2017 All-Stars game out of Charlotte.
Some brands faced a political predicament in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot in Washington DC, after news broke that many companies had donated to politicians who challenged the validity of President Biden’s election win. Toyota was one of the more prominent names that came under fire for donating to these politicians. They quickly announced they would halt giving and then quietly walked back that decision, which angered all sides in the process.
Later that year, Georgia and Texas passed new restrictions on voting. Some of the largest brands like Coca-Cola, Delta and American Airlines spoke out, and Major League Baseball moved the scheduled All-Star Game out of Atlanta. Reaction to these brands jumping into the issue was polarizing. Both bills ended up becoming law, and some brands were accused of doing too much or too little, demonstrating the dangers of brands getting involved in such issues.
As recently as this March, while the Florida legislature debated the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Disney initially chose neutrality—no doubt to avoid being dragged into such a controversial topic. Disney reversed its stand after employees protested and strongly came out against the bill. This ultimately managed to anger all sides, leading to Walt Disney World’s tax benefits being revoked by Governor Ron DeSantis.
As more brands get involved in issues like these, they must do a cost-benefit analysis before deciding to jump into controversial and polarizing waters. Companies need to determine what is worth getting involved in as they don’t have unlimited resources to get involved in every cause close to them.
I mentioned the voting restriction matter above. This issue was extremely complex. Colleges and universities now study Coca-Cola’s recent communication controversy when it entered the debate over a voting law in the state of Georgia, where the company’s headquarters is located. In making contradictory statements at the beginning of the discussion on the topic, Coca-Cola managed to initially anger liberals and then later conservatives. This political issue hurt the brand in the short term but settled down a few months later.
How corporate America is responding to the Roe v. Wade leak
The latest topic to enter the brand consciousness might be the largest of them all; the leaked writings discussing the overturning of Roe versus Wade and the impending decisions that could kick it back to the states where it would be overturned in many parts of the country. Consumers and employees are putting immense pressure on brands to step up and speak out. Apple, Yelp, Amazon, and many leading banks are either reviewing their employee health benefits or have already announced enhanced reproductive benefits for those whose access might become limited. Some companies plan to pay for their employees to travel to states where abortions will still be legal.
Given the complexities of this divisive issue, brands are approaching this slowly and with caution. Pam Jenkins, chief public affairs officer at Weber Shandwick, says companies are looking internally first. “At this stage on this issue, we’re seeing companies prioritize their workforce first — particularly women in their workforce — before they decide to make any kind of public statement,” she says. “Many companies are reviewing and adapting their healthcare policies to ensure access to reproductive healthcare services should Roe v. Wade be overturned and as states enact trigger laws and then focusing on communicating their commitments or changes in policies to employees.”
Given the backlash that some companies faced coming out of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law controversy, many companies are getting advice from their PR partners to sit back on this issue, at least for the short term. Amy Sezak, SVP of corporate communications at Yelp, posted on LinkedIn that “a well-known PR firm sent their roster of clients a blanket recommendation to stay quiet on Roe v. Wade,” referring to the blowback Zeno Group received for a strategy memo. Note: Zeno later clarified that the email was intended to advise clients on responding within the first 24 hours of the news break.
Sezak wrote, “Great business leaders and corporate communicators know that at times like this you should be guided by your values. You can’t say that you’re for women’s rights and gender equity in the workplace, and then stay silent on reproductive rights.”
PRWeek reached out to a dozen major PR agencies to get their thoughts on the topic related to Roe. Justine Griffin, principal at Rasky Partners, is not surprised by the reticence on both the agency and client-side. “It is just about the most fraught issue that there is,” says Griffin, noting people have gray areas in their position. Some people may consider themselves to be pro-life but don’t like the idea of taking away a woman’s right to make choices about her own body. Or some people may be pro-choice but have some reservations about that choice the further along a woman is in her pregnancy.
“It’s a very complicated issue, because people who are pro-choice still have some qualms about abortion and people who are pro-life have qualms about restricting women,” says Griffin.
Still, she says some brands should — and need to — speak out. “The set of companies that should be commenting [against the overturn] are those who are already very progressive, whose value system is part of their identity and would be inconsistent with their brands if they didn’t,” says Griffin. “Then there’s a set of brands who will be pushed into it because of their geography.”
That includes large corporations with employees in Texas, which last year signed into a law a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Some far-right members of the House also want to prevent pregnant Texans from seeking abortions in other states. Some of those companies may want to take a page from the U.S. Air Force, which offered to relocate employee families from states with anti-trans laws and do the same for employees in states where abortion becomes outlawed. Griffin says this communication can be positioned “about the health of their people rather than a political statement.”
“Silence can feel deafening,” says Caroline Dettman, founding partner of Have Her Back Consulting, a women-owned culture consultancy backed by IPG, and a former Golin executive. “But the companies we are working with are using this silence in service to thoughtfully and intentionally find and lead a way forward.” “What is critically important right now,” adds Dettman, “is for companies to decide the actions that they will take to support women. Because if Roe is overturned, companies are going to be expected by their employees and customers to take thoughtful action.”
What are the pros and cons of getting involved?
Whether working for a large national brand or a local, small-town business, many of the risk/reward analysis is the same in determining involvement in the causes or issues that interest you. Of the many questions that must be asked internally, one should be: how will taking a position on this sensitive topic impact our bottom line?
In the past, many brands were afraid to address controversial social issues. Nowadays, the risk of remaining ambivalent can be just as detrimental to your business as getting involved. If a topic is important to consumers, it should matter to your organization. Or, at the very least, be investigated.
Environmental, Social and Governance criteria (ESG), previously referred to as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), is now seen as core to the way responsible businesses operate. Some say CSR was a precursor to ESG in that it made businesses aware of their responsibilities to the environment and to society as a whole. ESG goes further by translating the CSR goals into positive, measurable actions.
There have been several research reports suggesting that consumers want brands to engage. And the numbers bear that out:
Study after study aligns with these numbers, reinforcing the requirement that brands engage in and address major societal, economic, and cultural issues that are important to their employees and consumers.
Brands succeeding in their activism efforts include Patagonia, which is frequently applauded for its work promoting sustainability in fashion, and Ben & Jerrys, which has a long history of fighting to address social and racial inequality. These are just two organizations that are shining examples of how a well-thought-through corporate activism strategy can pay dividends and become part of your culture.
How can brands meet the moment without getting burned?
There are things that brands can do to avoid running into trouble while taking a stand on important issues.
- Listen to everyone involved in your business: brands should preemptively know how employees and consumers feel before (not after) they take a stand. Focus groups and studies are crucial and are excellent ways to hear what people are thinking and their biggest fears and concerns.
- Drill down on root causes: where you can, try to tackle the larger issue behind the controversial topics you’re considering getting involved in. You could take a partisan stand on a voting bill, or you can pledge to register 10,000 new voters. You can come out for or against specific abortion legislation, or you can provide health resources to women as part of a corporate activism campaign. You can come out for Green New Deal policies, or you can promote your brand’s “net-zero” carbon emissions strategy. How you position yourself is crucial.
- Stand behind your stance: walking the walk is important when it comes to your talking points. The best way a brand can express its values is through how it treats its people. Corporate policies that are inclusive, equitable, kind, fair and caring tell employees and consumers alike what drives you. Promoting these policies among current and potential future employees, as well as consumers, influencers and others let everyone know where you stand.
The future of corporate activism
The annual Global Communication Report conducted by the USC Center for Public Relations is designed to provide insight into the evolution of the global communication industry by analyzing emerging trends like corporate activism.
Past research has predicted the rise of new activists and assessed how to engage with activist organizations, reviewed the convergence in marketing and public relations, tracked the scale of change disrupting the PR industry, and examined the industry’s evolution of ethics and its future use of technology and artificial intelligence.
This year’s USC Global Communication Report, The Future of Corporate Activism, helps us better understand this highly complex topic. Among their findings:
- 77% of communicators believe polarization is a challenge to their organizations
- 73% predict they will increase their engagement with social issues this year
- 83% think that business can play an effective leadership role in reducing the overall level of polarization in America
When it comes to corporate activism, public relations and communications professionals have never faced more complex and critical challenges in determining their involvement in societal ‘hot topic’ issues. Business leaders should be careful dipping their toes into these waters. It can be a risky move to make. As I mentioned above, in recent years, there has been no shortage of examples of businesses that suffered from making bad moves and mismanaging corporate activism.
Historically, companies have been hesitant to make political remarks in any form for fear of angering their customers. Not every company needs to stand up for every cause. Many think that the negative publicity that comes with taking a contentious stance isn’t worth the loss in sales. But in today’s charged atmosphere, not taking a position can be equally problematic for your business. It is imperative to do as much homework as possible before taking the jump into corporate activism. If done properly, it can benefit the brand, your employees, customers, and the community’s greater good, among others.
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