In today’s highly polarizing world, companies often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. In a time when consumers increasingly expect brands to weigh in on political and social issues, companies find themselves in a precarious situation in which they must decide whether to step into the conversation, and if they do, what stance to take.
This dilemma can sometimes be a no-win situation, especially when the public frequently sees no response as a negative one. In the wake of the recent administration change and ongoing recovery from a politicized pandemic, public opinion is as fractured as it’s ever been, and your company will need to have a plan in place to effectively and decisively manage your public relations if a situation arises where your company may need to make its voice heard.
The concept of corporate activism is by no means a recent development, but it certainly has become more prominent in recent years. The rise of social media has only accelerated the adoption of this practice, and consumers have taken advantage of having a direct means of communication with companies to open a dialogue and demand that companies take a stance on some of the issues the country faces.
The goal of corporate activism is not just to pander to consumers and score a quick and easy mention in the news, nor should it ever be. If your company makes the call to take a stance on something, it needs to come from a place of authenticity. The ultimate goal is to drive change, and your company needs to accurately reflect the principles and values that your consumers have come to expect.
Your company will never be able to weigh in on every issue that comes into the spotlight and doing so would only cause your efforts to seem less genuine in the eyes of your customer base. So, once again turn to your core values and identify issues where it makes sense for your company to make its voice heard. Consumers by now will know the type of company you are and what you stand for. Your message will carry with it a substantial weight by meeting these expectations, and consumers will come to appreciate your company’s actions as more than just a publicity stunt.
However, the current political and social landscape we find our country in creates demands that go beyond the original scope of corporate activism. Whereas corporate activism in the past has centered around more targeted issues and topics, recent conflicts, controversies, and tragedies have rocked the nation and forced companies to quickly make their stances known, or risk being seen in the public eye as approving of what is going on.
In March, the Georgia Legislature passed and signed into law a strict election law bill that was quickly denounced as a nefarious means to disenfranchise and discourage millions of Georgians from making their voices heard at the polls. In the wake of Joe Biden’s narrow victory over Donald Trump in the Peach State in the November elections, spurred in strong part by record turnout from Georgia’s Black urban and suburban communities, the states Republican government quickly set in motion plans to put measures into place that would stifle such strong turnout again in the future. Those measures included limiting access to early voting, mail-in ballot drop boxes, and even signing into law a draconian rule banning the distribution of food and water to people standing in line to vote.
The measure was quickly condemned across the country, and a fierce campaign was formed nearly instantaneously to demand that Georgian businesses denounce the newly signed laws and put pressure on the state government to walk back the measures.
One of the companies that drew the most ire was Delta Airlines, which initially reacted to the bill with mixed messaging that included seemingly praising it. After sharp backlash on social media, CEO Ed Bastian was forced to apologize for the apparent confusion, clarifying that while improvements had been made to the bill, the measures were still unacceptable and not in line with Delta’s values. Some damage had already been done by that point, and public trust in and opinions about the company took a considerable dip, erasing much of the goodwill Delta had previously generated for its calls for greater diversity and inclusion in its workforce and its solid messaging during the pandemic.
Other companies were quicker and more decisive in their actions, including Major League Baseball (MLB) that took the unprecedented step of relocating this year’s All-Star Game set to be hosted by the Atlanta Braves in their state-of-the-art ballpark in Cobb County, Georgia. While it received a backlash from those in favor of the voting law, MLB received strong praise nationally for its swift action and conviction in standing up for its values.
While your company may not have the same national impact that Delta or MLB has, there will still come a time when the need to take a public stance on a matter presents itself, and it is mission-critical that you keep a strong and strategic PR plan at the ready to address such a situation.
Take the time to analyze the scope of each issue and ensure your company is speaking based on all the facts available at the time. Avoid speculation and potentially spreading misinformation which could take away your credibility. Above all else, be true to yourself and make your stance known with authority.
You know the values your company represents, and your loyal customers will too. While one statement may not be the difference-maker, it is the authenticity and meaning behind it that can spark a change and put your company in a position to help lead the narrative.