A new generation of activists, driven by the lack of trust in political institutions, will become increasingly influential in the coming years, according to USC Annenberg’s 2020 Global Communication Report.
The new activists employ modern public relations tools to raise awareness of a broad spectrum of social and environmental issues, according to the study. The new activists tend to be younger, nonwhite, urban, female, well-educated and tech-savvy. They’re more likely to organize voters online than protest in public. Importantly, they’re open to cooperation with brands. The values of the responsible new activists often align with good business values.
Yet relatively few corporations and their PR departments are prepared to work cooperatively with the new breed of activists or respond to their attacks, the survey shows. The activists could pose a threat to companies following practices they oppose. But they also offer an opportunity to corporations that are committed to solving social issues, including diversity, voter rights, equal rights, environmental protection, and climate change.
Most PR professionals surveyed agree that corporations should take a public stand on social issues directly related to their business. While most (70%) claim to support activists, 60% confess they rarely involve activist groups when creating a new initiative for their company or their clients.
Few Brands talk to Activists
Even though most of those who work with activists find the practice beneficial to their brand, only 11% plan to engage with an activist group in 2020. This lack of communication explains why only 31% of PR professionals surveyed believe their organization is fully prepared to respond to potential activist attacks.
“Having historically being viewed as adversaries, modern activists have more in common with their corporate counterparts than many professionals realize,” says Fred Cook, USC Center for Public Relations director. “Both groups are addressing critical societal issues through purposeful communications and civic engagement. New Activism requires a new perspective from PR.”
PR and activists are Similar in Many Ways
Both the new activists and PR professionals agree that the best strategy for creating long-lasting change is not protesting but voting. Like the PR industry, the new activists shape new strategies to close the gap between temporary awareness and lasting results.
PR professionals say traditional activist tactics, such as protests and walkouts, are better for raising awareness than for influencing the political process. They agree that mobilizing voters (37%), running for office (34%) and voting in elections (31%) are more effective long-term. In a separate survey, activists place an even greater importance on voting in elections (43%), while few activists (11%) believe protesting in public creates long-lasting change.
Communicators agree that impassioned “average citizens” can be more influential than CEOs and journalists.
“We are witnessing the democratization of activism: Today’s activists are everyday citizens united in their desire to create real change and they’re employing modern communication strategies to influence the political process,” Cook says. “Their influence is growing, and they’re willing to partner with progressive companies who align with their values.”
The Road to Corporate Social Responsibility
Numerous research reports have shown that that corporate social responsibility improves long-term business performance. In addition, surveys show that consumers prefer to patronize businesses with strong histories of social responsibility and are more likely to purchase stocks of companies with solid ethical records.
While organizations typically emphasize financial contributions or employee volunteer work, partnerships with activists offers a valuable strategy for energizing corporate CSR efforts. Recording and measuring activities will help companies make better decisions about which social initiatives to support, improve the efficiency of their programs, and convince skeptical stakeholders of the value of the efforts. PR, community relations, and CSR professionals can and should lead corporate efforts to cooperate with, support and empower activists that share the organization’s values. Aligning with responsible activists can undoubtedly amplify the corporate voice.
Bottom Line: Young, tech-savvy activists can torment companies they loathe, but they can also boost corporate reputations by enhancing their CSR efforts. Activists’ goals align well with those of companies on many social and political issues. In reaching out and engaging with the new breed of activists, PR professionals can amplify their organizations’ messages and values.
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.