Among the many things that stood out during an extraordinary 2020 were the businesses that took a public stance on a host of social issues. We saw organizations large and small step in to fill a leadership void with their voices and actions in response to the year’s many societal challenges — the COVID-19 response; calls for social justice following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others; the increased global threat from climate change; and more.
We’re already seeing the trend continue in 2021. Brands like Citigroup, Marriott, and Blue Cross Blue Shield withdrew financial contributions from politicians who objected to validating President Biden’s Electoral College victory, which helped spark the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Taking a stand on social hot-button issues is new behavior for many organizations, but Americans are increasingly expecting these actions from corporations and their leaders. According to an October 2020 survey from Just Capital (an independent research nonprofit funded by hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones) 68% of Americans want CEOs to take a stand on social issues, up from 59% the previous year.
But once companies have put a stake in the ground on a particular issue, they need to remain accountable to build and maintain trust with their key stakeholders. Communications professionals have an important role in helping companies define an authentic path:
- We can counsel our leaders to only step into the fray if sharing a perspective feels authentic to the brand or to them personally, and when a company is prepared to give more than just lip service to an issue.
- We can remind them words are important, but actions must be the next step.
- We can also help brands and leaders remember they need to be brave when it comes to sharing a perspective. Some customers may applaud their actions, but others may vociferously (or even angrily) disagree and walk away from your business. Having the courage of your convictions is a necessity for socially conscious brands.
So before you speak, take a look in the mirror. For instance, if your organization comments on an issue like diversity, equity, and inclusion in America, be sure you’ve taken a good look at yourself first. How are BIPOC communities, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals represented in your company and among your leadership team and board of directors? Are you prepared to disclose your workplace demographic data, as well as concrete steps your company plans to take to increase its own employee and leadership team diversity?
Be ready to consistently share progress along the way. If climate change is your company’s passion platform, for example, the public will want to understand your plan to reduce your own carbon footprint. Better yet, share detailed milestones on the progress you plan to achieve each year and how you’ll get there.
Watch out for and defuse hidden landmines that could weaken your credibility. Consumers and watchdog groups (like the Center for Responsive Politics and Corporate Accountability) are conducting thorough research on corporate and individual political contributions. They’re paying close attention to see how brands and senior leaders back up their words with actions — and publicly calling them out for lack thereof. Nothing screams “inauthentic!” more than a brand that says one thing in a press release and a news story that follows the money and shows the brand’s executives making financial contributions that support the opposing side.
It’s an exciting and meaningful opportunity for organizations and leaders to step up and help combat some of the serious issues facing our country and our world. But commenting on an issue for the sake of a moment in the spotlight can wreak far more brand damage than saying nothing at all if it’s not something your company will truly invest in. So by all means, jump in with a perspective on what matters to you. But be ready to show how the rubber meets the road with your company’s actions.