Corporate activism insight and advice from noted PR pros
Recently, seven of the public relations industry’s top professionals
offered candid insights into one of the hottest, most controversial issues
of the day—corporate activism.
“Values-Based Decision Making in a Provocative Environment,” a panel produced by the Museum of Public Relations, shed
light on issues and obstacles modern communicators face. The panelists
agreed that organizations should build trust by conducting business with
transparency, honesty and finesse, though that’s easier said than done in
today’s fraught and fragmented cultural climate.
the American public increasingly expecting corporate leaders to take astand on social issues, PR pros have a huge role to play in mitigating blowback and navigating
Here are highlights from the corporate activism panel discussion, which
included executives from Weber Shandwick, Johnson & Johnson and General
Rebuilding trust through truth
Several panelists noted that emerging generations place a premium on truth
and authenticity. Bill Nielsen, retired chief public relations and
communications officer for Johnson & Johnson, believes that the PR and
journalism industries share a common currency: dedication to facts. A
healthy journalism sector and corporate communications driven by honesty
and authenticity will elevate the public dialogue and strengthen our
institutions. The onslaught of “fake news” and phony corporate speech will
only weaken public confidence and degrade the national conversation. It’s a
downward spiral that PR pros must actively combat.
[WEBCAST: Prepare your organization for inevitable crises]
As Johnson & Johnson chief communications officer Michael Sneed pointed
out, organizations today have a social contract with society and must earn
the license to do business. However, some organizations fall victim to
short-term thinking, or leaders fail to recognize that remaining silent or
neutral is no longer a safe option in our challenging social environment.
Several panelists offered observations and advice to communicators who want
to gain (or regain) public trust, particularly among rising generations.
Taking a stand is hard, but necessary
Corporate activism is just a matter of doing good things and getting on the
right side of hot issues, right? Not so fast.
“People mistake ethical decision making for deciding what’s right and
what’s wrong. Most ethical crises are (difficult) moral dilemmas,” said Roger Fine, a retired Johnson & Johnson general counsel.
“Before you broadcast your position to the world, you must consider how
various stakeholders will react. Expect pushback, because it will probably
Today’s PR teams are working in uncertain, acrimonious times, but that’s
not an excuse for remaining silent. In fact, it’s a reason to engage. As
Erica Taylor Southerland of Howard University points out: “There’s an
entire generation of workers who don’t recognize this atmosphere as
provocative. To them, it is the normal everyday.”
This is a crucial factor for many communicators who came of age before the
digital revolution. Today’s consumers have different experiences,
expectations and affinities.
If your organization speaks out, be prepared for fallout. J&J faced an
online backlash after joining other organizations in
pulling advertising from Laura Ingraham’s show to protest her criticism of Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg. Many Fox
News viewers responded by launching counterboycotts using the hashtags
Walk the PR talk—cautiously
Were J&J’s actions worth the blowback? The organization obviously
alienated some customers, but the storm surrounding the controversy seems
to have abated.
Other organizations are not so fortunate. When
Dodge aired a Super Bowl ad using a Martin Luther King Jr. voiceover to sell Ram trucks, it faced a
hail of sustained criticism. The Dodge example offers a reminder of the
dangers of piggybacking off serious topics and ending up looking phony,
insensitive, tone deaf or worse.
As explained by Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick: “It’s not just about doing
good things. It’s about identifying a social need. And what skill sets do
we have that can help that?”
An organization must be able to explain and support an advocacy position.
Empty platitudes are not enough. The position should be expressed in an
authentic, tangible way.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is known for taking strong political
stands, including his recent
offensive against the Trump administration. It makes sense that an outdoor apparel retailer like Patagonia would jump
into the fray against the opening of national park lands for commercial
Patagonia certainly seems to walk the talk in terms of giving back toward environmental issues.
However, when organizations trumpet sustainability programs but don’t back
them up with meaningful action, credibility evaporates.
Speed kills, but so does hesitation
Organizations must weigh many factors when jumping into potentially
divisive social dialogue. One is response time. It’s important to be timely
and respond swiftly if you want to be viewed as an authoritative, leading
voice in your industry, but that’s a risky move.
“It’s almost lethal to try and be first (in speaking out),” said Johnson
& Johnson’s Sneed. Ideally, PR teams should take time to evaluate the
implications and consequences of corporate speech.
For example, Sneed viewed his own organization’s decision to pull
advertising from the Ingraham show as too hasty and driven by the
relentless news cycle. “We call it trigger process: something (an action)
that could affect the whole organization … We took it from all sides,” he remarked.
People have good reasons not to trust corporations, but “communications is
the currency of change,” observed Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick. With the
veracity of journalists being questioned, the public relations industry may
be in a unique position to step forward and be a force for truth. PR pros
can help counsel organizations to speak out against wrongs, do good works
and be authentic in words and action. This kind of strategic corporate
activism can help to earn back the good faith of the American public.
A version of this post first appeared on the
Crenshaw Communications PR Fish Bowl blog.