In the wake of the death of George Floyd in late May, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of protests across more than 100 cities in the United States. From a business standpoint, the expectation of responding to these societal shifts has significantly changed over the past decades. Previously, companies generally stayed neutral in the face of potentially controversial or politically polarizing positions unless it made business sense. Given the 24-hour news cycle and proliferation of social media, company leaders across industries now feel as if they must make public announcements related to socially infused topics such as sustainability, marriage equality, and most recently, Black Lives Matter.
Executives face a daunting decision when tasked with choosing to make a statement: Say nothing and you come across as out of touch. Or, say the ‘wrong thing’ to the wrong audience, and feel the wrath of customers, investors, and employees. Our advice is twofold:
- Choose carefully.
- Rely on experienced hands to guide your approach.
- Think globally.
Choose your causes carefully: You don’t have to take a stand on every issue. Pick what’s relevant to your stakeholders – customers, investors, and employees. This, of course, requires you to have a sense of what these stakeholders hold dear. Working with experienced professionals in communications or public relations will help you select the priority issues and handle the potential backlash if there are inadvertent missteps.
Choose your words carefully: Public relations and communications are generally not strong suits for most growing businesses. However, having a crisis communications solution ready serves many purposes, including being prepared for responding to topics where your company’s customers are impacted by societal hot buttons. This thinking needs to be baked into the fiber of your company’s messaging and value proposition. When the topic is around fairness and equality, almost every company today needs to have a plan in place.
Think globally: These are not U.S. centric issues alone. These types of societal changes have a global view: A collective common voice on clear and immediate issues threatening all incomes and all nations. These ‘shared human experiences’ act as global calls for compassion and community, and yet have also shined a light onto shared shortcomings around independent agendas, historical thinking, fragmented priorities, and silos between governments and companies in an effort to address key societal issues. When communicating your position around a particular social issue, consider how your messaging may (or may not) resonate with other cultures that impact your business.
Real-Life Examples: Many companies have done an admirable job of directly tying their product or service line to a specific cause and fully supporting it.
Tom’s, which started off as an apparel company, began donating one pair of shoes in a developing nation for each pair it sold. Notably, they have recently updated this stance to align with more social causes, giving customers the option to choose.
Famously, Nike ran a major ad campaign with controversial NFL player, Colin Kaepernick. Despite initial backlash, the business results spoke for themselves, as Nike’s online sales grew 31% in the wake of the campaign.
On the flip side, you must be prepared to defend your position if you use these societal issues in your marketing. Nike’s motives were called to question on the Kaepernick campaign, “When for-profit enterprises insert themselves in issues like these, they invariably raise questions about their motivations and how much of the spotlight they should or shouldn’t take.”
Adidas was forced to respond to public accusations of discriminatory practices despite their external stand supporting Black Lives Matter. NASCAR, a conservative staple, publicly backed two traditionally liberal social causes, supporting the LGBTQ+ community and the prohibiting of the confederate flag at all of its events, and immediately felt the backlash. And remember, the microphone is always on, as the CEO of CrossFit learned when a recording of his personal views was made public. He ended up resigning.
Ultimately, the key to communicating about social issues is to ensure you have a thoughtful approach and consider the perspectives of all stakeholders. Your messaging and the causes you choose to speak about should align with your brand and your core values. Potential for backlash always exists, so be prepared for it. It may be worth the risk if you truly believe in what you’re advocating.
About the Authors
Rajat “Raj” Kapur is the founder and Managing Director of &Marketing. He strives to provide growing businesses of all sizes unparalleled marketing strategy and execution services. Raj brings two decades of professional experience in marketing, sales, and strategy development experience spanning B2B and B2C Fortune 50, mid-sized, and startups.
&Marketing provides the robust outsourced marketing department growing companies need without the high overhead costs of big agencies or full-time employees. Our variable model empowers businesses to reach their growth goals through access to the guidance and expertise of senior level strategists and a flexible execution team.