After the past few months of corporate missteps, it would be simple to advise companies to just keep their heads down and not engage in potentially controversial issues. But that’s not how PR folks roll.
A recent Gallup poll found that the United States is almost evenly divided about whether businesses should take a stance on social or political issues with 52% saying businesses should not and 48% saying they should. Those under the age of 29 are almost 50% more likely to say businesses should than those over the age of 45. Democrats are more likely to approve of businesses addressing social or political issues, as are women.
Charging into political dog fight requires a strategic approach that requires thoughtful navigation.
Here are eight questions that companies should ask to successfully enter today’s politically charged environment:
1. Is this issue authentic to our brand?
It is simply not possible for every company to speak out on every issue. Before weighing in on a controversial issue, companies and organizations should revisit their mission and values. If this issue does not align well with existing values, it might not be the right issue to tackle. Find an issue that feels authentic.
2. Are we walking the walk before we’re talking the talk?
Stakeholders expect that before companies become involved in controversial social matters, they can back up public proclamations with their own measurable results. Look at your employee policies, hiring practices, CSR, and more. Get your own house in order first.
3. How will our stakeholders react?
It’s critical to understand how your stakeholders will react before becoming involved in a potentially controversial issue. Consider surveying them and understanding their point of view – really understanding it. One of the mistakes some communications teams make is to discount the beliefs of some of their customers.
Additionally, just because your position may frustrate some stakeholders it doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong decision. Similarly, just because a position is popular, doesn’t make it right for your company. The key here is to understand before you move forward what, if any, the backlash might be, so you can prepare adequately for it.
4. How will we communicate this to our stakeholders?
If the proposed alliance is controversial to some of your stakeholders – and you know this because you’ve asked them – how you communicate this position is critical. Align the position to your core values, explain that you understand their point of view, and demonstrate that this is an important part of your strategy without marginalizing current stakeholders. Consider incremental shifts so you can lead stakeholders to the changes you’d like to see.
5. Have you asked someone who doesn’t agree with you what they think?
I’m fortunate. My entire family has a completely different set of political views than I do. They often act as my personal focus group. We have a loving relationship that allows me to ask them what they think without fear of judgment on either side. Most people don’t have that.
Curate a sounding board composed of people who disagree with you on controversial issues. Seek to understand why they feel the way they do. It’s too easy to dismiss those with whom we don’t agree as “uninformed” or resort to marginalizing them via overly simplistic labels.
A recent PRWeek/NYU study found that PR professionals’ social and political beliefs often did not align with the general population. Ensure your communications teams are diverse in terms of race, gender, ideology, religion, socioeconomic backgrounds and more.
6. Can we meaningfully influence the issue?
Does your organization have the resources and expertise to actually make a difference regarding a specific issue? If not, your company risks being viewed as a hypocrite. Find an issue in which your organization can make a difference and execute well.
7. Do we have internal buy-in from our entire team?
It’s always puzzling to hear that leadership from an organization was shocked that their communication team and/or CSR teams were wading into controversial topics. Not only is keeping them in the dark unwise, but it could be a missed opportunity as stakeholders are looking to business leaders to solve societal problems. Be sure your top executives understand and embrace the plan, and, then, run your contingency plan by them to ensure they understand the potential risks, rewards, and your potential responses.
8. How will this impact employees?
Customers are not businesses’ only stakeholders. Employees are a critical stakeholder, too. Per the Edelman Trust Barometer, 54% of employees globally think CEOs should speak out on controversial political and social issues. Employees want their leadership to use their platform to make positive changes.
Regardless of the issue, Gallup also found that 88% of Americans believe that businesses should try to make the world a better place. Sadly, just 24% of Americans believe companies do it well.
There is enormous opportunity for businesses and organizations to have a positive influence on the world around them.
The key to success is doing it in a way that is unifying, positive, and authentic.