Insights from our team: Socially responsible communications in a hyper-politicized moment

By Claire Abisalih

Profit-above-all is no longer a compelling or even an acceptable business strategy. Millennials and Gen Z have grown into adulthood facing down some high-stakes negative consequences from that approach, including both a global financial meltdown and an intensifying climate crisis. It’s well reported that these generations want the money they earn and the money they spend to mean something.

The consequences of this shift are clear: Businesses are constantly being judged by their values and scrutinized on when, how, and why they take a public stand on important issues.

This is also happening at a moment of increasing politicization. We live in world where it’s hard to find broad agreement on seemingly mundane concerns, and where it’s not unusual for political leaders to weigh in on how companies run their business. Companies thus find themselves forced to “take sides” more often than ever before, and with higher stakes.

At the same time, not speaking up isn’t really an option — and may itself be an error. The good news, though, is that corporate activism, if done right, can actually make good business sense. Here’s why:

Brand matters — to people and companies

It’s why we started Copperfield in the first place. These days, consumers look to support businesses whose brand identity reinforces their own “personal brand,” and workers, including tech talent, tend to choose employers whose mission they support.

Saying nothing says a lot

Staying silent on an issue no longer indicates neutrality; it allows others to fill in the blank for you, or worse, to hijack your narrative. Plus, silence is generally interpreted by both sides as tacit agreement with the opposing position(s).

Risks may be smaller, and rewards larger, than they appear

A recent Harvard Business Review study found that consumers now view certain types of advocacy as “merely normal business.” Speaking up presents valuable opportunities to connect with your audiences on a human level, to build trust and loyalty, and to affirm or strengthen your brand identity.

So back to that important “if done right” caveat. While there’s no single “right way” for companies to go about becoming more politically and socially active, there are guiding considerations that we use to help brands develop a strong, strategic, and thoughtful communications approach:

1.    Let your own brand be your guide

We work hard to help brands clearly articulate their identity partly because mission, vision, and values can serve as a north star when strategy questions arise. Acting in accordance with your brand’s identity and values creates authenticity, and makes your actions defensible even to those who might disagree with your specific stance on an issue.

2.   Be transparent

If something in your company’s history could be perceived as counter to what you’re saying or doing in the present, or if your current position doesn’t square with public perception, you must address that openly and honestly. Transparency goes a long way in instilling trust.

3.   Revisit your CSR plan (or formalize it if you haven’t yet)

Along with mission, vision, and values, look to your CSR work to draw inspiration and direction for which causes to support and how to talk about them in a way that is true to your brand. Whatever you say should also be backed by action — another reason to align with a current CSR plan or add to it — so employees and consumers know that you’re not just “all talk.”

4.   Run a stakeholder analysis

Thinking about who your work impacts may help decide when, where, and how to speak and act on an issue. Consider:

  • Current customers: Issues that overlap with your customers’ priorities and your company’s values are good ones to take on; you will avoid appearing to pander.
  • Employees: Taking a stance on issues is part of talent recruitment and retention; employees want to know that their company and leadership will “do the right thing” and have their interests at heart.
  • Shareholders: It’s this group’s job to be concerned with bottom-line impact, so conducting a traditional CSR analysis of costs and benefits may help earn their buy-in.
  • The general public: We know this group can be loud and intimidating — especially on social media. But how many of them are also in, or hold influence over, your consumer base? Lasting negative impacts to your brand are likely only if people who have been loyal to you feel betrayed by your words and actions. Listen and take steps to make it right when that happens. The rest, though scary, may just be noise.

5.   Plan ahead

One of the best ways to avoid or minimize a crisis is to have a plan in place. Prepare some language that can be used to quickly craft brand-approved statements on any issue of your company’s concern, appoint spokespeople ahead of time, and always strive to be proactive rather than reactive in your communication.

6.   Consider a coalition

Companies around the globe are recognizing the importance of speaking up for their values. Odds are that even if you’re the first to speak up, you won’t be the last. Consider looking to other likeminded companies in or beyond your industry to put out a group statement or take a united stand. There’s strength in numbers.

7.    Finally, don’t try to do it all

When you speak on an issue that doesn’t feel like any of your business, you risk coming off as a bandwagoner, or worse, appearing opportunistic or disrespectful. So (again) think carefully about authenticity and brand alignment, and don’t be afraid to take a little more time to get it right.

In a hyper-politicized world where stakeholders expect brands to take a stand, a strong brand identity lays the foundation on which to build trust and loyalty, even in difficult times.