How brands can effectively contribute to social change
In today’s day and age, people are encouraged to have an opinion or stance on many social issues to be a contributing member of society. This has become especially true for those in a place of privilege whose voice can make an impact. Some of the issues that have become extremely relevant in the past couple of years include marriage equality, climate change, racial equality, and the recent Presidential election.
However, to what extent do brands or companies have an obligation to speak out on these issues? Is every brand obligated to make a statement or take a stance on every social issue? Should they pick and choose what’s most important to them?
While there is no clear answer to this, there are a few questions that brands and businesses should consider before they speak out on social issues.
What issues are important to a brand’s customers?
A major part of knowing what issues to speak out on involves understanding the issues and causes that are important to the brand’s consumers. Looking at the target publics and what is important to them will dictate what issues the brand will be vocal about.
Are brands sharing their values with stakeholders?
Jayla Lee, a lecturer at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University, refers to the importance of environmental scanning. If brands do speak out, “it shouldn’t just be reactionary. They should have that awareness on their own before there is a crisis.” In other words, companies shouldn’t wait until an event breaks the news to share their values and show their publics that they care.
A company can do this by writing out its core values, says Ryan Rauzon, Managing Director of Communications and Public Affairs at Summit Strategy Group, LLC. This should include such things as their ethics, mission, vision, harassment training, and shared values around a code of conduct.
How can companies effectively speak out on social change?
In order to seem genuine and authentic in their approach, organizations must speak out on issues that align with their values. They cannot decide an issue is important to them just because it is relevant for other companies. A company that has done a great job sharing its values is Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the company joined many other Americans in the Black Lives Matter movement and took to social media to speak out on racism and police brutality. They also posted a powerful statement on their website about dismantling white supremacy. Ben & Jerry’s was successful in their message because they did not come across as tone-deaf or reactionary. They have been outspoken in their support for Black Lives Matter since 2016. They also have a history of bolstering and backing other marginalized groups.
However, a company that hasn’t already expressed support for a movement such as Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be discouraged from doing so. “The leadership [of the company] should speak with their customers and stakeholders about these issues,” says Rauzon. “Once they confront tension, they may be in a better place to have a policy or a statement.”
It’s all about authenticity. If an organization vocalizes their support for LGBTQ rights but have no LGBTQ employees, they run a serious reputational risk. It is essential that companies act on their supposed values.
What risks are involved, if any, for a brand to speak out on social change?
Brands definitely face risks in doing so. “In a cancel culture, if you say one wrong thing, you are done,” says Lee. It is for this reason that brands need to take the mentioned precautions to avoid losing consumers. However, “avoiding tensions and conversations, or picking and choosing where to weigh in, is not helpful,” says Rauzon. Brands and companies have to promote dialogue, even if they risk losing consumers.
At the end of the day, every company needs to decide for themselves what is important to them and how they can exemplify the values they promote. Lee reminds us that public relations is about communication and action, and understanding this is what sets us apart as managers in the field.
By Emma Law
Emma is a senior at San Diego State University studying Public Relations. She spent the last two summers working as an intern for Summit Strategy Group, LLC. After graduation, she plans to move back to San Francisco to pursue a career in Public Relations.