ITL #513 Silence is not an option: corporate activism needs to become a specialized PR function9 months, 1 week ago
Amid growing polarization, organizations should consider building specialized capability focused on corporate activism, social justice, and advocacy. By Yvette Sterbenk.
Climate change. Racial justice. Women’s healthcare. Immigration regulations. LGBTQ+ rights.
The list of sociopolitical issues that have polarized the United States, the UK, and elsewhere continues to grow, compounded by the power of unregulated social media platforms, controversial elections, highly debated economic and trade decisions, and – because that isn’t enough – the event of a global pandemic. The last decade has been particularly tumultuous, and companies are constantly being pushed by their stakeholders to not only be clear about where they stand on topics they have carefully avoided in the past, but to actually become proactive advocates and activists around these issues.
As a result, corporate activism is a growing area of practice in the field of communications. According to a 2022 report by USC Annenberg on corporate activism, 73% of PR professionals say their companies and clients are likely to increase their social advocacy work in the next year, and 94% say they are likely to spend more time in their day-to-day work dealing with societal issues. Most companies engage in activism using tactics and channels that have traditionally been reserved for marketing and brand-building. They may develop corporate advertisements that make positive connections to key social causes, place messages on their social media channels, or issue press releases that explain their stance. While multiple internal stakeholders may weigh in on the decision for a company to speak out or take action on an issue, the message creation and delivery falls to the communications professional.
Doing corporate activism the right way
When done right, corporate activism can lend credibility to and elevate awareness of a sociopolitical issue, and it can improve the reputation of an organization. However, the relationship of many companies with human rights-focused issues is complicated, as corporations have historically profited from, or at the very least, ignored, the oppression of marginalized groups. So, more often than not, people question the motives of corporate activism, and they are highly critical of what companies say, the channels they use to deliver these messages, and whether they actually do enough to back up their messages. Because of this, and because of the immense power that corporations have on society, it’s important that companies get their advocacy and activist activities right.
And many companies really struggle to get it right. Here are just a couple of examples from my own research. In a study I conducted with several colleagues in 2019, we examined US companies that had won awards for their “femvertisements:” ads that celebrate women or take on gender equity issues. We wanted to know what else those companies were doing to help address the systems that create gender inequities.
With very few exceptions, the companies that won prestigious awards for femvertising didn’t engage in significantly more efforts to support gender equity than companies that had not won those awards. Additionally, the majority of these companies lacked anything even close to equitable female representation at the leadership levels. While the messages in the advertisements may have contributed positively to societal dialogue around gender equity, the companies did not appear to be as committed to addressing systemic issues.
Likewise, another group of researchers and I looked at what companies said in response to the issues of racial injustice that took prominence in June 2020. Among our findings was that most of the corporate statements were “cookie cutter.” In contrast to the study above, many of the statements did include specific, tangible actions the company would take to address racial inequalities. However, the majority seemed as if they were constructed using a checklist of key messages, with little individualized focus on the company or the sector’s unique roles and responsibilities in regards to racial justice.
In both of these cases, the intent was likely to do good, but the execution did not always have the hoped-for impact. Impactful corporate activism is built through more than just PR tactics, and needs focused, informed, deliberate planning, and proactive integration of the issue into every part of the organization.
Specialized roles are needed
In the same USC Annenberg report noted above, when PR professionals were asked how they work on social issues, among the popular tactics identified were gut instinct (30%). This is in comparison with consulting with policy experts (37%), relying on data analysis (35%), and collaborating with activist groups (22%). Relying almost as much on gut instinct as on consulting data, collaborating with activist groups, and consulting policy experts is troubling, especially when the demographics of PR professionals across the US and UK remains majority white.
The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) acknowledges the complexity of building a “corporate-activism capability,” which includes (but is not limited to) establishing a clearly articulated purpose, collaborating with multiple stakeholders across an organization, closely monitoring issues and stakeholder sentiment, and developing a process for managing the tracking, assessing, and governance of issues response. This is easily a full-time job that is a cross-section of CSR, advocacy, government relations, employee relations, marcom and more.
Navigating polarized employee and customer bases is challenging. Getting the message right, ensuring the message matches corporate actions, and strategizing about who delivers the message and how, are important decisions to make when addressing sensitive and crucial sociocultural issues, and they require time, focus, and strong engagement with the issues and the people impacted by the issues.
Currently, many PR professionals attempt to do all of this specialized work in addition to their daily activities. While many companies have designated a specific role in the organization for corporate social responsibility (CSR) or environmental, social and governance (ESG) management, there still remain too few corporate roles dedicated solely to social justice advocacy and activism.
If you are wrapping your activism and advocacy work into a generalized PR role, I would encourage you to explore creating a specialized function that focuses on corporate activism, social justice, and advocacy. As we continue to see polarization among our stakeholder groups, and as expectations grow for corporations to lead in addressing social issues, this kind of role will become key for companies to manage their reputation and try to make positive impacts on society.
Yvette Sterbenk, Associate Professor/Strategic Communications, Park School of Communications/Ithaca College.mail the author
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