Corporations have an opportunity to create loyal customers by engaging in political and social issues that demonstrate the organization’s corporate social responsibility (CSR).
“Americans have an outsized appetite to take action on issues and drive change,” states the Doing Businesses in an Activist World study from Global Strategy Group. “They expect brands to do the same – and to engage with them as consumers and employees.”
Some PR and communications veterans warn that taking a side on a controversial issue can alienate many potential customers. Most of those consumers, however, were never likely to become loyal customers.
Global Strategy Group recommends companies follow the example of political campaigns that shore up their base, persuade swing voters and largely ignore opponents.
People have preconceived notions about brands and tend to view most as either Democratic- or Republican-leaning. Democrats have a heightened appetite for activism. They are more likely to give credit for companies that take a stand, seek information about corporate values, and buy from companies that take action. Both Republicans and Democrats are equally willing to boycott companies — but they boycott different ones.
Nike’s Kaepernick ad showed an example of a company that spoke to its customers while irritating non-customers.
Outdoor gear retailer Patagonia offers another case study of a company that spoke to its base by suing the Trump administration for rolling back public lands protections and taking other pro-environment stances. Democrats tended to view its actions, more favorably than Republicans.
TOMS, best known for its idiosyncratic shoes, has become a favorite example of successful corporate social responsibility. Founder Blake Mycoskie promised customers that TOMS would match every pair of shoes purchased with a new pair of shoes for a child in need. He called the program One for One®. Customers are probably paying a premium for the shoes, but they know it’s going to a good, non-controversial cause. TOMS has now expanded its CSR program to other product lines. Warby Parker, which sells low-priced eyeglasses online, emulated TOMS with a buy one / give one model that has especially resonated with millennials.
Recommendations for Brands Taking Stands
Corporate communications professionals can play a leading role in advocating for and promoting their organization’s social responsibility contribution to society. These are some recommendations on how companies can complete corporate social responsibility programs and how PR can lead the way.
Identify causes you feel passionate about. “And don’t worry if you alone can’t solve the problem. Just be genuinely passionate about rallying behind whatever issue you identify,” advises Dave Pributsky, head of marketing strategy and business development at 2920 Sleep, in Business 2 Community.
Do your homework to understand consumer sentiment and understand the consumers’ politics and ideology. Global Strategy Group suggests asking yourself these questions:
Who are our brand loyalists and activists? Will this strengthen our brand among them?
Who are our potential customers? Will this attract or deter them?
Who are our brand resisters? Can we tune them out?
Start now to lay the groundwork with key stakeholders before big issues hit. The more active and consistent the organization, the more it prepares its audience to anticipate the positions it takes, the easier it will be to bring them along with you. Customers will be more receptive to companies that communicate about their approach.
Communicate with stakeholders. Gauge how effective your choice is by talking to stakeholders, including company leaders, employees, brand ambassadors, and customers. Employees and ambassadors need to talk about the company’s CSR goals in a way that’s genuine and passionate.
Find the right moment to unveil your CSR plan. TOMS CEO Blake Mycoskie revealed his CSR plan gradually as celebrities and others on social media shared the cause online, creating natural awareness and organic influencer marketing.
Complete research and planning. The first step for PR is to complete an audit of social media habits and an inventory of needed communications materials such as news releases, fact sheets, biographies and articles, advises Kristie Byrum, assistant professor of public relations and media law at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. Create a calendar of communications activities.
Employ media monitoring and measurement. “Before you speak, write or engage with your community, listen and observe trends,” Byrum says. Social media monitoring tools can monitor sentiment toward specific topics. Monitoring can reveal myths and misperceptions about the social responsibility program and key messages that resonate with stakeholders. The CSR program can be adjusted to emphasize campaigns that resonate.
Publicize your work. Aggressively publicize the company’s cause marketing and CSR activities. However, emphasize the cause, the charity and the measurable impact to avoid being perceived as self-promotional.
Bottom Line: More consumers want, and even expect, corporations to take stands on political and social issues. Companies taking a controversial stand may offend some but like politicians campaigning for office, they can afford to ignore those not in their core audience. PR experts warn corporations to carefully research issues and how a position will resonate with their target audience before taking action.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.