How Business Can Take Stand on Political and Social Issues
| By Jennifer Kuklenski |
“Never talk politics in business.”
This is a phrase I heard time and again as a child growing up with parents who were small business owners. At the time, it made sense. My parents served an entire community. Their “target market” was anyone within a 30 to 45-mile radius who needed their products and services. It was made up of people with wildly different views on political and social issues. Talking about their political beliefs could alienate customers that they genuinely cared about.
But times have changed. Businesses are increasingly under pressure to take a stand on high-profile issues. According to Mike Proulx, a marketing analyst at Forrester:
“Politics are no longer avoidable for brands.”
Today’s consumers are “belief-driven.”
Unlike traditional consumers of the past, who may have prioritized convenience or price, today’s consumers want businesses to help improve the world while making a profit. A Sprout Social survey found that two-thirds (66%) of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a public stand on political and social issues. Similarly, Cone Communications’ Corporate Social Responsibility study found that 87% of consumers said they prefer to purchase from companies that “stood up or advocated for” issues they care about.
The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study suggests that this is a worldwide phenomenon, and the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report found that 53% of consumers agree that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in at least one social issue that does not directly impact its business. Sallie Burnett, founder of Customer Insight Group, notes that people are increasingly looking to brands rather than to governments to solve problems.
Daniel Korschun, Stephen Cozen Research Scholar in Marketing and an associate professor at LeBow College of Business at Drexel University, and N. Craig Smith, director of the Ethics and Social Responsibility Initiative (a part of the INSEAD Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society), explain that brands can no longer avoid politics and in most cases, shouldn’t even try.
“Companies used to avoid political issues at almost any cost. But those still relying on a strategy of abstention and neutrality are quickly learning that it no longer works the way it once did,” they explained in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article. “Sometimes it leads to more harm than good.”
When should your business speak up about political or social issues?
Paul A. Argenti, professor of Corporate Communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, explains that sometimes a clear moral issue arises and the consequences will be most severe if you say nothing. Other times, it may not be as clear. Ultimately, companies and leaders should ask three questions before speaking out on potentially controversial political or social issues:
1) Does the issue align with your organization’s purpose?
It is impractical for your business or leaders to speak out on every issue. People are generally looking for a meaningful connection between brands and the issues they are speaking out about. Sprout Social explains that four in five consumers believe brands need a specific reason to take a stand on political or social issues. Accordingly, brands should “err on the side of relevance,” speaking out about issues that are important to their business and primary stakeholders (e.g. customers, employees, and investors or financial constituents).
With that said, some issues are simply too large to ignore, regardless of immediate relevance to your brand. Acting like nothing is wrong during times of major political or social crises can make your brand seem insensitive, disconnected, and privileged.
2) Is your organization sincere?
Relatedly, the last thing consumers want to hear is lip-service. Meaningful political and social conversations require preparation. Before speaking out, be sure your company is willing to put in the time and effort to understand the issue and effectively communicate its context. Many of the world’s most pressing issues are incredibly complex. You don’t have to be an expert on the issue, but you do have to be willing to learn from experts and put your money where your mouth is.
Make sure your company has the resources to make a difference through volunteer work or philanthropy. As explained by Argenti, “if your words don’t match your actions, they will be perceived as inauthentic, hypocritical, or woke-washing.”
3) Will your constituents agree with you speaking out?
Although data shows that brands face more rewards than risks when sharing their positions on important political and social issues, there will always be some risk associated with taking a stance publicly. According to Kabrina Chang, a clinical associate professor of markets, public policy, and law, an unavoidable drawback associated with speaking out is that some stakeholders will be disappointed. “Knowing that a business cannot satisfy every group of stakeholders in making a statement on a controversial issue,” says Chang, “the most authentic thing to do is act consistently with what it stands for.”
Your company will greatly reduce this risk associated with speaking out if key stakeholders generally agree with your proposed stance. If there is disagreement among your stakeholders, then you will need to carefully consider their relative importance to your brand and prioritize their interests. We discuss how to prioritize stakeholder interests in another 3P Insights Impact Article.
How can your business take a stand on political or social issues?
If your answers to the above questions are “yes,” then you’ve determined that you should speak out about an issue. Now you’ll need to consider how to take a stand effectively.
Create a Communications Strategy
Companies need to create a plan for speaking out about issues. Argenti recommends using a communication strategy framework to guide your thinking. You first need to know your audience on both sides of the issue. Remember that even if most of your target market agrees with your position, speaking out may still jeopardize your relationship with some of your audience. Have a plan for how you’ll communicate the issues and respond to people who disagree with your position.
One question to ask yourself is whether your business should take a leadership role in driving the conversation about the issue, or whether it is better to partner with other organizations that can more meaningfully influence outcomes related to the issue. If your brand has a very large reach or if your company has captured a large share of the market, then being a leader may be the better option. However, if you are running a small or medium sized enterprise, then partnerships are likely more impactful.
Partnerships with nonprofits or charities working on the issue can be a great way to build your brand’s legitimacy. However, be sure to do your due diligence in researching potential partnerships. As explained in The Economist, all the hard work you’ve invested in building your own brand reputation can be destroyed quickly by aligning with the wrong organization.
Look into other causes or issues the organization supports and be sure they align with your brand purpose, mission, vision, and values. Find out if the organization has made any political donations. If they’ve supported political candidates or officials, be sure to also look into the candidates’ or officials’ positions or voting record on political and social issues – even those unrelated to the issue you’re planning to speak out about.
When asked about the most effective ways for businesses to take a stand on political and social issues, consumers want brands to make monetary donations. Consumers identify that businesses may have more resources than individuals, and they expect businesses to give back. Additionally, data suggests that consumers want businesses to share their giving through their marketing channels to help encourage others to do the same. Businesses have a substantial platform and consumers want to see them use it to encourage more socially responsible behavior.
Consider volunteering for the organizations you’ve chosen to partner with. If you’re a solopreneur, you can volunteer your own time. If you’ve got employees, you can offer them paid time to volunteer. Employer-sponsored volunteer programs are a highly visible way to help consumers realize your stance on political or social issues is sincere. Aside from being good for society, volunteering is also good for business. As discussed in another 3P Insights Impact Article, volunteering can help your organization build social capital in addition to your brand reputation. Learn about impactful ways to volunteer here.
Lobbying is a healthy part of democracy. It is one of the few ways that people and organizations can influence policy. Lobbying allows interest groups to present their views to political officials on issues and legislation that affect their daily lives or businesses. Yet, public opinion about lobbying tends to be negative. Two British research organizations note that the large quantities of money that flow with little accountability have created a perception that lobbying is corrupt and unethical. But corporate advocacy doesn’t always need to be self-interested.
Mary Kay offers a great example of how corporate lobbying can be used for good. On June 15, 2005, six Mary Kay independent national sales directors drove their pink Cadillacs to the U.S. Capital to help convince legislators to renew the Violence Against Women Act. Working to reduce domestic violence had been a part of Mary Kay’s purpose since the 1980s. Not content with philanthropy, the company aimed to make a bigger impact: to advocate for more than $500 million in additional federal funds to combat domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The company educated legislators about domestic violence through its government relations department. As reported by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Mary Kay’s lobbying work has been influential in shaping domestic violence policy.
Silence is no longer an option
Staying silent on important political and social issues is no longer an option. Saying nothing can speak volumes. Effective political and social advocacy as a business requires careful evaluation of which issues your brand(s) should take a stance on, strategic planning to effectively communicate your position, and action that demonstrates your sincerity and commitment to the issue(s).
3P INSIGHTS is a consulting firm that offers training, speaking and support services to help organizations attract and retain diverse talent, create inclusive workplaces, become better environmental stewards, and improve their overall social, environmental, and economic impact.
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