“Should my business take a stand on social justice issues?”

Westin hotel sign displays #GEORGEFLOYD hashtag.

by Patti Rowlson

This is a question that has been asked many times over the years and even more so since the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 – an action that spurred personal reflection, public outcry, protests and riots throughout America and beyond.

Here in Whatcom County, local business leaders and marketers have been grappling with whether they should continue to separate their business from politics and social justice issues – a practice they may have felt was important in years past.

Some have wondered whether it would be appropriate to share personal values and views through the corporate communications channels that they have access to. Maybe you have even wondered what impact using the voice of your brand to share issues related to racial equality, climate change, child welfare, poverty, economics or other issues might have on your business and on the surrounding community?

These are good questions, and the answers will be unique for each business, because each business and its leaders will have its own set of values. Each business – whether a mom-and-pop operation, a small business with 20 employees or a large employer – gets to decide whether using their brand to advocate for political issues is the right thing to do or not.

Either choice is OK.

As you further explore this topic, an important thing to keep in mind is that having a long-term, strategic and sustainable plan will increase your odds of truly making a difference. Having a plan can also reduce the risk of your business being negatively impacted, PR-wise.

Examples of companies that successfully incorporate social justice issues into their business.

Some brands have had social justice issues infused in their core values and mission statement for years, and they operate their business in alignment with their values and mission.

Nike, as an example, has a corporate value that focuses on equality, and they have set up programs within the company to support that value. This web page makes it clear what they consistently do to foster an inclusive culture. This is an example of action-based advocacy – they actively do and promote activities that align with the value.

Here in Bellingham, Overflow Taps is a good example. They launched their business in 2016 with a mission to “connect craft beer enthusiasts to a meaningful cause.” Their chosen cause is clean water for people in developing countries.

Over the years, they have been consistent with their efforts to bring awareness to the impacts access to clean water can have on humans. Through their business, they have raised money that funds water projects in Africa. They are living the mission and actively working toward a common goal: access to clean water.

Other examples include real estate groups that use their brand to raise awareness of homelessness and fair housing issues. There are pet service businesses that give back to humane society operations and fishing industry organizations that invest in stream restoration projects. Each has made a commitment to support a cause over an extended period. They pick a primary focus and commit to supporting the cause for the long haul.

How corporate promotion of social justice issues can go wrong.

Notice the reference to consistency in all cases mentioned above? Without consistent, long-term and strategic efforts, brands teeter on the edge of slacktivism, or “slacker activism” – a topic I wrote about in late 2019

Slacktivist marketers share activism-related content through their corporate communication channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and in-store promotions.

For a brief period – a week or a month, maybe – some of these marketers vigorously ask for consumer involvement — then, they drop that cause and move onto the next hot topic when it arises. 

The marketer may passionately want to support certain causes that they feel strongly about, but they don’t know how to do it on a corporate level. A lack of preparation and planning can turn into efforts that fizzle.

Inconsistent, erratic efforts cause friction between a company and consumers; corporate slacktivism can cause consumers to tune out all messages from a business and even from the cause being advocated for, which is not the goal.

A recent Inc.com article explains how some companies are missing the mark when it comes to social justice and why they wish they had not started down that path.

Marketers and small business leaders who have a plan (mission, vision, action steps) for communicating through their business about social justice issues and for actively seeking change within their business and the community can greatly minimize that friction.

If you want your business to have a meaningful impact on issues that matter, explore what it means to be action oriented, as explained in a PR Week article about the need for companies to listen and then to create plans that go beyond supportive statements and donations.

Personal advocacy vs. corporate advocacy.

Posting a political or issue-related status update on your company’s Facebook page – one that is connected to an issue you personally feel passionate about – may not connect with the voice of your business or the people who buy from you in the way you intend. Doing so can cause confusion as people see or read things that are off-topic for your brand.

Sometimes well-intentioned posts can come off poorly or be interpreted in ways you didn’t intend. In addition, sharing personal views through your business can offend or heat up a large share of your target audience.

Yes, there are brands that broadcast their stand on political topics with an intent to heat up consumers. Back to Nike as an example, their chairman and cofounder, Phil Knight, recently said that it doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it. “You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something.”

Of course, major corporations like Nike have vast experience with marketing, branding and customer relations. They have marketing departments and big budgets for messaging; they employ experienced teams that plan, strategize and assess risks and rewards.

Small business marketers, of course, do not have robust marketing departments and teams of experienced communications pros to help plan effective cause marketing campaigns, which does increase the risk of unintended, potentially negative results that will take time to clean up.

My advice: Pause and think. Then pause and think again. Ask yourself: What is the purpose of sharing this? Does this align with our company’s brand, or should I share this message on my personal page instead?

Without a plan, you may get caught up in the heat of a moment and post something that increases the chance of negative PR for your business. With a plan, you don’t have to continually assess what causes your business should advocate for (if any); your mission and vision will guide you.

How to increase the impact of cause marketing and reduce risk.

With a plan that aligns with your company’s mission, you will know exactly which issues (be specific) you can show corporate support for through your communications channels. You will have time to prime your market – dripping messages over a period of time and educating them on why the issue matters to your brand and what you have done and are doing about it.

You will have time to “do and show,” which means fully incorporating the issues that matter most into your brand – online, in your place of business, with your staff, and through all forms of communication. Then, at moments when messaging about the cause needs to be elevated, stakeholders will be better prepared.

If your company does not have a strategy for cause marketing, or if you have not tested your audience and educated them about your purpose for advocacy, use your personal social media accounts to share your views on political or social justice matters.

“I want to do something, but my business doesn’t have a plan.”

We’ve all been forced to adjust and pivot, to grow and try new things in 2020. Perhaps living and working through a global pandemic, along with the tragic events of May 25, will provide the fuel you need to make a lasting change – one that will positively impact others in a broad and diverse way.

Perhaps this time of awareness – watching and learning from others who are testing the social justice and cause marketing waters – reaffirms your desire to keep politics and advocacy out of your business and continue focusing on what you do best. That is totally fine, too. Not all businesses need to step into the social justice ring.

In recent weeks, you’ve had time to consider both paths. If you do not have a corporate mission or vision, you can use this time (and your newfound determination!) to pause, plan and develop a strategy that will align with your decision and serve your business – and the community around you – in the years to come.

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