How to Lead When Corporate Activism Hits Home

2June 2021

Last year showed that companies and brands can no longer be bystanders in challenging social justice issues. It’s increasingly riskier to stay silent than to weigh in.

High-profile companies, from Patagonia to Ben & Jerry’s to Nike, have built their reputations as corporate social activists and helped introduce the concept of conscious capitalism. These pioneers and a growing number of corporate senior leaders are increasingly weighing in on social issues and taking a stand on contentious public policy issues.

At the same time, The Harris Poll, Edelman Trust Barometer, and other pollsters show that Americans trust companies more than the federal government to help find solutions to challenging issues. As the government struggles to address societal challenges, people increasingly turn to companies to advocate for positive change.

Consumer demand is causing corporate social activism to evolve and spread rapidly in the face of new challenges and controversies. The murder of George Floyd accelerated a new level of visible advocacy as companies and their leaders weighed in on issues like Black Lives Matter, having already taken a stand on immigration, food insecurity and trade policy. Most recently, the contentious debate over voting rights in Georgia quickly embroiled Georgia companies and their leaders, eventually spreading to other companies that are headquartered far outside the Peach State.

Nearly 60 percent of Americans expect Minnesota companies to help address issues of brutality and systemic racism within the state.

This groundswell of corporate action foretells involvement in other contentious issues, especially when headline-making events happen within the state where a company operates. Minnesota may show us how this develops next. After the high-profile Derek Chauvin trial and killing of Daunte Wright, a recent national poll by Maru/Blue and Colle McVoy showed that nearly 60 percent of Americans expect Minnesota companies to help address issues of brutality and systemic racism within the state. As a result, companies in Minnesota and their leaders should be prepared to take a clear stand on policing in Minnesota, including how to support public policy changes in communities, Minnesota and Congress. Minnesota companies need to also consider how these events and their subsequent corporate actions affect their “based in Minnesota” reputation. About 40 percent of respondents said the repeated stories of Minnesota’s police-involved killings have negatively affected perceptions of the state as a whole. The state’s declining reputation may impact national recruitment and other business operations.

As companies consider this data, knowing how and when to take a stand on issues requires a clearly defined corporate activism and brand citizenship framework. Prioritizing the issues should not depend on what’s trending on a social channel or news headlines. Quick or one-off actions that suggest “woke washing” or opportunism can significantly damage a company’s reputation. Here are immediate considerations for leaders when planning their corporate activism next steps.

  1. Align on how taking a stand on an issue reflects a company’s mission and values. Authenticity is critical when a company or an executive is vocal and visible about a social issue. Taking a stance is more likely to be accepted when viewed as a credible and authentic reflection of a company’s standards and values.
  2. Confirm that your actions reflect what you say. Statements of support without actions and accountability can ring hollow or not genuine. Likewise, staying silent can also have negative consequences by communicating indifference or opposition.
  3. Assess the potential impact a company can make in speaking out about and supporting an issue. Be realistic. A strong, visible endorsement could influence other organizations or opinions — or it may have limited relevance if not accompanied by actions or efforts to broaden support.
  4. Anticipate stakeholders’ reactions. Taking a stand on social issues is almost always contentious to some. Anticipating stakeholder reactions can help define which actions will reflect a company’s stand and commitment to the issue.

Now is the time to consider how and when your company will take a stand. Anticipating societal and consumer demand will not only help protect your corporate reputation, but it also has the potential to protect sales and future growth.

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