In a business environment that is increasingly politicised and polarised, companies are coming under more pressure to speak out on heated social, political and moral issues — whether that’s US abortion rights, racial justice or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
They face mounting demands to engage in an expanding range of complex issues in ways that go far beyond the traditional bounds of corporate social responsibility or political lobbying. Employees, consumers and investors are calling for firms to weigh in on topics they would previously steer clear of. Nine in 10 major companies say the burden to engage on social issues has intensified in recent years, according to a 2021 report from the Public Affairs Council.
Businesses are becoming more vocal than ever on touchstone issues, using a variety of tools to express their views. For instance, many companies “blacked out” their social media pages in 2020 to show support for Black Lives Matter. But speaking out is not without risk, including the possibility of alienating some stakeholders while engaging others. PayPal’s boss Dan Schulman said he received death threats after taking a principled stance by excluding white nationalists from the payments service a few years ago.
But holding back is, increasingly, no longer an option, with almost two-thirds of employees wanting companies to take a public stand on social issues, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. In an increasingly divided world, when should businesses take a stance, and how?
Many executives will be feeling some anxiety about this. Brunswick published research showing that only 39% of voters thought corporate communication on social issues was effective. To help executives find the right formula, we spoke with Laetitia Mimoun, an associate professor in marketing at ESCP. She has carried out research on how activist brands engage in controversial issues, which offers a blueprint for mainstream firms to follow.
When the public is largely in agreement, it’s essential for all brands to speak up, because not saying anything can position the company almost as an opponent.Laetitia Mimoun
Stay within your sphere of legitimacy
Unfortunately, as Mimoun tells us from the start, there is no way to please everyone. But there are ways to minimise the potential for a significant backlash if your brand is not used to speaking out on such issues.
First, our expert warns companies to restrict their interventions in the public arena to only those issues that fall within their sphere of legitimacy. This means that because of the brand’s identity, history and values, the company is uniquely positioned to speak with authority about an issue in which it is well-versed.
“Let’s say you’re Mattel, the American toy company that makes the fashion doll Barbie. Since coming out in the late 1950s, the doll has been accused of gender stereotyping and for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards. But Mattel also has a platform to speak about feminism, the patriarchy and even children’s education,” says Mimoun. “On the other hand, should they be speaking about crime prevention or data privacy? Probably not.”
Second, our expert reminds us that businesses should tackle issues on which the public is widely united. A good example of such an issue is the ongoing conflict in Ukraine: the West was almost unanimous in its condemnation of Russia. The implication is that companies need to read the room.
“When the public is largely in agreement, it’s essential for all brands to speak up, because not saying anything can position the company almost as an opponent,” Mimoun warns, noting that silence can imply complicity.
This underlines a broader point: keeping quiet is now often the riskier choice. “For most brands, not speaking out at all is not an option today. There will be some issues they must speak about — if it directly relates to the concerns of the brand’s target audience. So it’s important to understand your consumers and, ideally, you want their views to overlap with your own sphere of legitimacy.”
It’s important that you are consistent in your actions, not just in your communication but across your entire value chain
Speak up in ways that are authentic
This will take brands into uncharted waters. Companies have a tightrope to walk in taking a stance publicly, with several key risks to contend with. “Most brands worry about being seen as too controversial or edgy, but in fact more often the risk is to be seen as opportunistic,” says Mimoun. “More dangerous than not speaking up is to speak up in a way that is not authentic.”
For example, some companies that pledged support for racial justice on social media have been accused of hypocrisy. Instead of helping the cause, they were just trying to increase their profit margins. The backlash was especially fierce against brands that were not embodying the values they professed to support. “If Black Lives Matter to brands, where are your black board members?” read one headline.
This underlines a critical point: speaking out is not sufficient on its own. “It’s important that you are consistent in your actions, not just in your communication but across your entire value chain,” Mimoun stresses. “For many brands, their commitment stops on social media. But taking a stance should also involve following through. So if you speak out on a feminist issue then you should work on the representation of women in your products and workforce and the gender pay gap.”
Finally, our expert tells brands to explore their moral heritage to ensure their communications are consistent with or sensitive to any past wrongdoing. For example, the sportswear brand Adidas ended its commercial relationship with US rapper Kanye West last year over his antisemitic comments. The pressure was even more intense on Adidas given the company’s historical association with Germany’s Nazi Party.
In formulating a plan for speaking out, it’s wise to start with an understanding of what your brand’s history is, so that you can avoid claims of hypocrisy.
Companies ultimately face a steep learning curve as they stray into societal issues. Risks abound, but they should be able to confidently weigh in – so long as they stay within their sphere of legitimacy and speak up in ways that are authentic.
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