On hot-button PR issues, silence is no longer an option

Photo by Rots Marie-Hélène/Unsplash

Businesses used to be able to avoid backlash to their positions on social and political issues by not talking about them, claiming to not have any, or making blandly positive statements and then walking offstage. Not anymore.

Those strategies for hot-button social and political issues have been growing less viable for years, and the long tail of last summer’s racial justice protests seems to have swept them off the table. Research consistently shows that people expect companies to have a purpose and live up to it: Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer study, for example, found that ethical drivers are three times more important than competence in determining trust in a company. Yet businesses clearly are struggling to adjust to this new environment.

Last week, two questions put this into focus for me: One was a query in a PR forum asking how companies should respond when they get unexpectedly connected to a hot-button political or social issue. The other was from a colleague who wondered how to counsel businesses afraid of angering a portion of their customer base if they spoke out in favor of climate change legislation.

Facing unexpected blowback? Avoid the 3 Ds

The first question is easy. With customer and investor scrutiny on corporate social and environmental performance rising, companies shouldn’t be surprised to see themselves connected to a charged topic. Literally, do not be surprised: Open all the closets and look for vulnerabilities, especially where your actions are at odds with brand promises. Then develop a plan for addressing them.

If you do get unexpected blowback around social and political issues, avoid the three Ds: dishonesty, defensiveness and deflection. Toyota flubbed this with its response to the furor over its donations to Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. Its statement that “We do not believe it is appropriate to judge members of Congress solely based on their votes on the electoral certification” came off as defensive, dishonest and dismissive of customers’ concerns. If the company meant what this response implies—that it judges politicians solely on their value to the business—it should have said so. At least that would have been honest.

The best course is to follow crisis communications best practices: Apologize if you need to, sincerely and without caveats; communicate directly to key groups, like employees or investors; and describe what you’re doing to address the issue. If you don’t plan to do anything, say so and explain why. Better to take your lumps now than invite continued criticism when people hold you accountable for unkept promises.

Nervous about taking a stand? Consider the cost of silence

The second question arose in a group of businesses that are working to reduce climate impacts in their industry. Some are gung-ho activists, but others worry that taking public positions on policy solutions will set off a small but vocal group of disapproving customers.

I have a strong bias toward speaking out—Thinkshift has long advised clients to take a stand on issues they care about—but what was once an outlying PR position is now more mainstream. The Public Relations Society of America recently asked 14 communicators when a company should speak out on social issues, and while there’s plenty of nuance across the responses, “silence is no longer an option” is a strong thread.

That belief reflects current research. For example, a Porter Novelli study released in May found that 6 in 10 Americans (59%) say it is no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues and 49% say they assume companies that are silent just don’t care.

Companies with strong activist positions will get pushback and should prepare for it. But customers who support the stand often respond with intense loyalty—the Porter Novelli study found 67% would trust and purchase from companies that drive progress on issues they care about. And middle-of-the-roaders will at least respect a commitment to acting on values.

Many companies don’t feel comfortable with becoming activists, and that’s fair enough. But every business should realize that they will be held accountable for their values positions, whether they’re stated or implied. It pays to be prepared in word and in deed.

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