How to Determine When to Take a Stance on Public Issues as a Brand
Activism Has Become a Powerful Component of Corporate Identity–But It Has to Be Done Right
The past few weeks (and months) have been some of the most politically charged that America has experienced in recent years. The tumult in Charlottesville shook the country, and many companies have felt compelled to take action in the aftermath. Google, Cloudflare and GoDaddy all blocked the neo-nazi site, The Daily Stormer, earning both applause and criticism for overstepping their bounds. In an internal memo, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince acknowledged:
“Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.”
When is the right time, then, for businesses to step into bigger conversations? When Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank stirred controversy in February by calling President Trump “an asset to the country”, that prompted a hastily released public statement by the company said, “We engage in policy, not politics.”
Talking politics doesn’t always go poorly; well-executed value campaigns win loyalty from customers and attention and respect from the world at large. It can also create major positive change. Companies like Patagonia have won wide-scale accolades for their environmental efforts, and also enjoy the satisfaction of doing good things for the planet.
Tapping into narratives, the deeply held beliefs that drive behavior in the world around them, gives companies depth, conveys corporate values and creates relevance. We live in intensely political times, and engaging in these types of conversations brings brands to the forefront while also giving them an opportunity to create positive change. If you want to be involved in these types of relevant narratives, check out the rules below to ensure you do it the right way.
Four Rules For Stepping In Without Overstepping
1. Be deliberate. In the examples above, the Under Armour executive offered his opinion relatively casually, expressing his personal perception after meeting the president. The company’s subsequent statement distanced the organization from those personal opinions:
“We have teammates from different religions, races, nationalities, genders and sexual orientations; different ages, life experiences and opinions. This is the core of our company. At Under Armour, our diversity is our strength, and we will continue to advocate for policies that Protect Our House, our business, our team, and our community.”
Executives are used to being asked their opinions on all kinds of topics, and it’s fine for them to discuss issues like industry predictions or share comments about competitor news, but political commentary is very different. Political statements should be weighed heavily and decided upon strategically. The omnipresence of social media means that any piece of public information has the potential to be taken out of context and go viral.
2. Understand the existing connotations with your brand. Before jumping into any politically-loaded conversations, you have to understand what your brand has stood for traditionally and whether any new assertions you make will align with those values. Several brands have recently been sharply reproached by the public after attempting to enter controversial and politically-charged conversations that consumers didn’t feel that they belonged in. Instead of public respect and praise, these brands are often accused of attempting to co-opt activism for financial gain and their brands were adversely impacted.
At their core, any stances that your organization takes should be genuinely founded in its values. A good place to start might be looking at the types of charities or activities your company has been traditionally involved with, what local issues matter to people close to headquarters or what is written in the company manifesto. Beyond knowing your purpose, it’s important to know how you are perceived. Examine the words and phrases connected to your brand, the influencers associated with it, and the broader context your brand is operating in. There’s a wealth of social media, traditional media, even comment fields to be harvested here. There might be trends there that surprise you and may help reinforce or refine your purpose and values.
Once you have an articulated stance on a public issue, plan a regular cadence of campaigns or other commentary so that your message is strong and consistent. Patagonia is a great example of a company that’s successfully aligned itself with the same identifying principals over time and consistently reinforces that across all platforms.
3. Know your audience. Ultimately, brands need to prioritize narratives that will resonate with their audiences and that are authentic. That means taking an honest look at the topics of interest to the people engaged with your company and taking a stance on them, even if it isn’t an obvious association. Invest time and resources into understanding what your target audience cares about beyond your product or agenda. Dig into demographics and customer data, look at social media content and find issues that resonate with your customers, partners and clearly align with your organization.
One company that has taken huge strides to create a conversation is Salesforce. The company’s main offering, a CRM platform, doesn’t inherently lend itself to any social agenda, the way Patagonia’s products do. Yet by examining the business landscape, Salesforce was able to identify a major issue facing its audience: diversity. Salesforce has made pushing for diversity a major tenet of its business, with dedicated programs, sessions at conferences, as well as floods of content on the topic. Doing so has made the company more than a tech company; many view it as an ally in the push for more diversity in the workforce.
4. Evaluate the tension involved with the issue at hand. Getting political comes with major advantages as well as major risks. Taking a controversial stance–or engaging in a particularly emotional situation like Charlottesville–can come with real consequences. Obviously, no business wants to alienate an audience or make them feel defensive, so make sure the narrative you’re backing is a strong one that you are willing to support, and always prepare for the possibilities of poor reception when taking a risk, especially with politics.
In order to understand what makes a topic emotionally fraught or otherwise divisive, you have to do an audit of the existing conversation — and understand what’s really driving it. Most companies tend to go wrong here by using social media analysis or polls to frame their decisions. But meaning, purpose, and context doesn’t translate well into the metrics that social media tools monitor for, and polls are infamously biased and inaccurate. You just can’t get at depth through mentioned and basic sentiment.
Instead, gather data from multiple sources and evaluate whether you’re likely to get pushback. Understand the full narrative, what’s driving it, how it’s changed over time, and importantly what underlying beliefs its represents. Plan in advance how you’ll respond to people (or organizations) that might disagree. Reactionary public communications are rarely as successful as ones that are thought through in advance and connect with core beliefs.
The days of businesses operating in a silo are over. Consumers have grown to expect that the brands they interact with participate in conversations happening in the world at large. Brands are powerful, and they can significantly influence the narratives they engage with. Getting involved in controversial narratives makes brands–and the communities around them stronger. It’s just imperative you understand how those narratives may impact your organization, for better or for worse and be prepared to answer for them.