How companies can avoid getting burned when taking on hot-button issues

Major League Baseball moved its midsummer All-Star Game out of the Atlanta Braves' Truist Park due to Georgia's new voting law. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Major League Baseball moved its midsummer All-Star Game out of the Atlanta Braves' Truist Park due to Georgia's new voting law. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Brands are driving greater purpose, but that requires managing risks.

In the past year, the death of George Floyd, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, COVID-19 and the rise in anti-Asian violence fueled a greater urgency of people wanting to make a difference and to have greater purpose.

But should businesses take a stand on heated topics? What are the risks? How do companies mitigate the fallout?

“The truth is, big businesses can move the needle when necessary, so there’s both precedent and sometimes good reason to get involved,” says Meredith Wilson, CEO and founder of Emergent Risk International, a Dallas-based risk and intelligence advisory firm. “Sometimes, when people feel their government has failed them, they push harder on the influencers – the ones who keep the economy running – and use it as a lever on what they perceive to be unresponsive governments.”

Ryan Gerding, president of Ink Inc. Public Relations, a Kansas City-based firm, says if a company decides to take a stand, it must be authentic and sincere.

“Don’t be the company that changes their Instagram profile picture to a black square in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but doesn't take steps to address their own internal diversity and inclusion inadequacies,” he says, adding that brands need to maintain their own credibility when stepping into a public debate. “The general public expects authenticity from the brands they trust and wants to know that they are being good corporate and global citizens.”

Another reason why brands should consider stepping into debates: They’re more trusted than other sectors. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer states that businesses are more trusted than NGOs, government or the media. Businesses top other institutions in being perceived as trustworthy and competent.

Carol Cone, CEO of Carol Cone on Purpose and a former chair of jury for PRWeek’s Purpose Awards, built a lifetime career in helping companies identify and fulfill their missions that go beyond making profits. In choosing whether to take an ethical stance, she offers that a company should first ask itself questions and understand its values: what does the company stand for, beyond the bottom line? Does it stand for DEI? If so, speaking against voter suppression would align with a decision to publicly advance company values.

“If they feel courageous, and if they’re prepared to take the heat, then they should take action,” says Cone.

Civil rights groups had protested Georgia’s recently signed voting law, which critics say makes voting more difficult, particularly for Black communities. Seventy-two Black executives signed a letter, urging corporations to fight voting-restriction laws, which Republicans are pushing in more than 40 states. When faced with boycotts, Delta and Coca-Cola turned around and unequivocally spoke out against Georgia’s law.

Most prominently, Major League Baseball relocated its All-Star Game and draft from Atlanta to Denver.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp mean-tweeted MLB, accusing the organization of caving into “liberal lies.” He vowed to “stand up for secure, accessible, fair elections.”

There has been no evidence that backs the need to rectify voter fraud, based on the 2020 elections. Yet Georgia’s voting reform creates greater restrictions, limits ballot access and transfers power from local election officials to state lawmakers, according to The New York Times. It also criminalizes giving food or water to people waiting in line to vote.

After resoundingly coming out against the law, Delta is facing political retribution. Georgia’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to revoke the airline's fuel tax break, but the Senate adjourned its session before voting on the bill. Former President Donald Trump has called for boycotts of Delta, Coca-Cola and several other companies coming out against the Georgia law.

In Texas, Dell and American Airlines, as well as the Business Roundtable, spoke out against two bills, which, similarly to the Georgia law, make voting more difficult.

More than 250 executives signed a joint statement in solidarity with the Black executives and leaders of the movement, opposing laws that create barriers to polls and ballots. With similar legislation in more than 40 states, corporations around the country will face additional activists’ demands to fight against voter restrictions.

Sometimes the question of whether to take a stand is not without some pain. These days, companies can be criticized for either staying quiet or speaking up. Weighing in on election disputes, Edelman’s Tonia Reis, global executive director, intellectual property, told PRWeek that speaking up builds a company’s relationship with consumers.

“Our data has shown us that taking a stand on issues like this builds and protects trust,” she says. “Companies and brands are more likely to lose trust by not speaking out on an issue.”

Frank Strong is founder and president of Sword and the Script Media, an Atlanta-based b-to-b tech and media consultancy. In his company’s October 2018 survey, when respondents were asked if businesses and brands should take a public stand on political issues, 49% said “no.” But with younger people, ages 18 to 29, 56% said “yes.”

A Marine veteran, Strong says if a company is ready for a fight, it should study the issue from the stakeholders’ perspectives. Next: “red team” the message, meaning attack it from all perspectives, define a goal and appropriately staff the project and get executive support.

In 2019 at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation, moving away from “shareholders’ capitalism” to “stakeholders’ capitalism.” Cone explained stakeholders include board members, employees, the community, the supply chain and even the planet.

After a company decides to take a position with a “hot button” issue, the first steps are to show a genuine commitment. This means a willingness and ability to back up words with actions.

“The values that they must live and breathe by are interpreted via action,” says Cone. “You can't just state your values. You have to live them and the C-suite needs to model the behavior daily of those values.” The first risk lies in failing to successfully convey sincerity of actions aligned with company values. This can risk reputation.

She emphasizes that this is a business strategy because a company’s currency is its employees, their commitment, intellect and positive energy that’s unleashed when they feel they’re supported, with leadership that lives their values. A June 2018 LinkedIn study found that “71% of professionals say they would be willing to take a pay cut to work for a company that has a mission they believe in and shared values.”

That’s not always the case. In March 2020, The Wall Street Journal cited a Work Institute statistic that replacing workers in 2018 cost employers $617 billion.

Even if the majority of employees are on-board with a company’s stance, both Cone and Strong note with this second risk, a company cannot please 100% of any group. They advised listening to all stakeholders, especially opponents and detractors so brands can better anticipate the future disapprovals and attacks and revise a strategic messaging, accordingly.

These perceived disagreements can affect conventional PR concerns of reputation, brand and sales, so it is important to try to anticipate different reactions, address grievances and bring people closer together before staking a position.

Strong points to the third risk of organized opposition. 

“Suddenly, you’re not just taking a stand. You’re in a bitter and public fight,” he cautions. Without planning ahead, a campaign could unexpectedly siphon time and resources.

Wilson notes this aggression could also include online disinformation and bot campaigns, distorting a company’s position on issues. Hostile actors can troll and bully staff on social media. These disruptions potentially raise financial, security and even safety concerns.

Finally, political opposition requires working with elected officials. “Retribution is part of the game,” explains Cone. “In politics, you need to go to your detractors. You need to go to your supporters. And you also need to be courageous.”

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.

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