We have to get real on this. If you’re wondering why you’re seeing major corporations or brands take stances on highly charged social and political issues, it’s unlikely that they’ve all simultaneously discovered their socially aware or politically activist convictions that no one knew existed before.
The crisis and issues manager in me that’s been around for a few decades tells me something else. I think it’s more likely that someone with significantly more power and influence than a grassroots activist group has decided to send a message to certain CEOs to tell them which positions they are to publicly take. It would have to be someone with enough power to get the C-suite’s attention so that the downside of not taking a public stance would be worse than the downside is if they do.
So, now a few Fortune 500 companies and other brands are assuming positions on some highly charged issues that they never would have even commented on before.
At the same time, it is also true that this trend can lead to certain curiosity at other companies and brands that may be wondering if they, too, should take public stances on some issues. CEOs at those firms may turn to their senior level communications counsel for their input.
If you are that communications person, and you want to be prepared, here are some factors to consider before you tell your leadership to go all in:
- Determine if it’s a corporate fit – In other words, if your company makes sneakers, and the social issue is labor conditions for sneaker manufacturing plants overseas, then it probably is an issue you should consider. But if you’re from the same company, and the issue is not directly tied to your business, don’t be so quick to jump into the fray. Outside of following all legal and ethical standards, and treating your stakeholders with respect, you are not obliged to join any social campaign. In other words, you should always do the right thing, but not every social or political issue is as altruistic as initially advertised, and even when some start with the best of intentions, many have the potential to devolve into something you never wanted for your company or brand.
- Know your purpose – Is it to shore up relations with customers, consumers, vendors or some of your employee groups? Can you shore up those relationships without taking a public stance, or without following the crowd? It’s almost always best not to follow the pack just to follow the pack. “Everyone else is doing it,” is one of the worst motivations for doing anything in PR and often ends badly.
- Consider the downsides if you do it – If you can’t think of any, you haven’t thought this through, and you haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening to other firms and brands. Every public issue, particularly in 2021, carries with it some significant risk to your corporate and consumer brands, your reputation, your stakeholder relationships, and your business. Take the time to identify those downsides and properly examine them.
- Consider the downsides if you don’t do it – I have to include this point, but I can assure you that in most cases, the downside of not taking a position is much less when compared to the downsides of taking a position. Even if you feel pressured to take the position because you fear that you will be attacked if you don’t. More often, not taking a position – even if it brings with it a certain degree of negativity on social media or from some other place – likely won’t be significant enough to harm your business. On the flip side, there is the very real possibility that taking a public position could hurt your business.
- Make sure you’re not doing this just to get attention – If your company makes frozen meat products and you decide you’re going to try to embarrass a leading scientist on Twitter by overtly inferring that the scientist is not as scientifically savvy as you, you’re in over your head, and you’re being disingenuous. You should not be tangoing in this way. By the way, this true story is a good example of what not to do. Not all publicity is good publicity. And doing silly things to get clicks and shares is usually not “marketing genius,” because often as not, it doesn’t do a thing for sales.
In 2021, it can be self-deceiving to presume that when companies take stances on highly charged social or political issues, their motivations are organically driven. All the more reason to think twice and be very deliberate before you wade into waters that are new to your company. Perhaps they are waters you never should be in to begin with.
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Tim O’Brien, founder of O’Brien Communications in Pittsburgh, is a veteran corporate communications consultant with particular experience in crisis and issues management, along with other C-suite priorities. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.