United we Brand? Top Reads on Corporate Activism

Should CEOs speak out on social, civil and political issues? Should brands take a stand?


Back in the day (meaning just a few years ago) the answers were easier. It was a more innocent time and easier for businesses to step up to the plate when government was not doing its job. The Edelman Trust Barometer (an annual gauge of trust in institutions) has long ranked CEOs higher than others.

Today it’s more complicated. There’s a hot mess of issues that divide and we all seem ready to have chips knocked off our shoulders. Political correctness dominates, and it is easy to get in trouble by saying the wrong thing. At the same time, going far to the other side could invite the creation of a toxic workplace, something that takes a lot of work to undo.

So, what’s a brand (and their top execs) to do? Should they play it safe or take a stand? Fence-sitters might alienate those who want to know the brand’s political and social colors. But taking sides can also fail spectacularly, as I pointed out in my post Just Don’t It.

There are many sides to these questions. Below, I dig deeper and shed light by excerpting from the many excellent articles on the topic.

Lead with Values

In a PR Daily story about Starbucks, Ted Kitterman recommended leading with values; he cites some great examples:

The biggest takeaway for anyone following the news cycle these days must be that you can’t please everybody. So, what should you speak out on? Brand managers and PR pros should be actively searching for ways to express their brand values to consumers…

Think about Patagonia’s campaign to save protected national park land. More controversial efforts have included Dick’s Sporting Goods stand on guns, Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad and Gillette’s campaigns regarding inclusion.

What all these companies have in common is a cadre of leaders ready to stick to their principles and take the heat. They are also ready to lose some customers for what they believe in.

From Hero to Zero

Can businesses do well by doing good? What happens when bottom line realities collide with CSR goals?

This NY Times article shows the blowback that can result. It reported how agricultural giant Cargill fell out of favor with environmentalists:

For years, the American agricultural giant Cargill has been on relatively good terms with environmental advocates, praised for agreeing to a landmark moratorium on buying soybeans grown on deforested land in the Amazon rain forest.

In recent weeks, though, that relationship has soured over the company’s refusal to agree to a similar moratorium in another environmentally sensitive region of Brazil and… its failure to meet its anti-deforestation targets. This month, the environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth released a report titled “Cargill: The Worst Company in the World.”

50 Shades of Woke

Sword & Script blogger Frank Strong wrote about the nuances of taking a stand, covering another Edelman study, and his own survey:

A study by Edelman found… “64 percent of consumers around the world now buy on belief, a remarkable increase of 13 points since 2017.” The ensuing narrative has been that “taking a stand is no longer an option for brands.”

Yet asking people if they buy on belief is not the same thing as … if they’d buy from a company with a public position on a political issue with which they disagree. There’s a level of granularity that needs to be explored…

If the quality, convenience or price of a product or service is better than the competition, respondents said they would still buy from a brand even if they took a political position with which they disagree… employees matter too. If the workplace is divided over an issue, any stand could be disruptive.

PR tech firm Meltwater posted an article that explores the different sides of brands taking stands, and also shares some great examples. The story, by NewsCred, says:

The prevailing advice seems to be that if a brand chooses to go down this path, it should proceed with caution. It should select an issue that’s a fit and be prepared to back up its promotional efforts with REAL actions to support the message it puts forward.

In Employers we Trust

Frank Strong mentioned the importance of employee concerns. Indeed, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals “My Employer” is the most trusted institution:

“The last decade has seen a loss of faith in traditional authority figures and institutions,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “More recently, people have lost confidence in the social platforms that fostered peer-to-peer trust. These forces have led people to shift their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers.”

Workers also like to take their employers to task, according to the many stories I’ve seen about employee activism. This Medium article is a first-person account of #GoogleWalkout, a trend so prevalent that it apparently deserves its own hash tag. The author, a 13-year Google veteran, railed against the company’s unchecked power on the way out the door.

This NY Times story reports that an employee revolt led a PR agency to drop a contract they’d just won for a private company that runs border detention centers.

Regarding activist workplaces, right leaning, anti-PC Mises Institute wrote about the dangers of The Rise of Woke Capitalism for Education News. The post likens these companies to totalitarian governments or even religions pushing their beliefs.

Boardroom Sociopaths

I’m a cynic and question the motives behind most corporate activism. Do companies push CSR and philanthropic agendas without regard for the PR dividends? In the Jewish religion, true charity should be given anonymously. Who really believes that Nike chose Colin Kaepernick without some consideration for their bottom-line business interests? And if they didn’t, shouldn’t they have?

In a NY Times DealBook piece, Andrew Ross Sorkin writes about Jame Gamble, a former corporate lawyer for the largest companies:

[He’s] concluded that corporate executives – the people who hired him and that his firm sought to protect – “are legally obligated to act like sociopaths.”

It’s because they have a fiduciary responsibility to guard the bottom line and protect shareholder interests.

“The corporate entity is obligated to care only about itself and to define what is good as what makes it more money,” he writes in the essay. “Pretty close to a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder. And corporate persons are the most powerful people in our world.”

Sorkin describes Gamble’s modest proposal:

Companies, he suggests, should “adopt a binding set of ethical rules, approved by stockholders and addressing the key ethical dimensions of corporate life” including relationships with employees, communities, customers, and [companies’] effects on the environment and on future generations.

This movement, if successful would compel them to balance profits and ethics. Sounds great, but Andrew Ross Sorkin points out the obstacles and unintended consequences of such a move.

A Few Final Thoughts

Can companies do well by doing good? I think they can by taking a long-term view, insofar as stronger local economies, clean environments and happy employees can all be good for the company. Yes, they should be strong businesses; but not the kind built on the backs of exploited workers and plundered ecosystems.

I love the proposal above, that boardrooms and C-suites should also be guided by ethical rules. I agree with PR Daily’s advice: that top execs should lead with principles and damn the torpedoes.

E.g. we can just look at the latest news cycle, which included two mass shootings. Matthew Prince, CEO of cloud tech firm Cloudflare showed guts in taking extremist messaging board 8chan offline, as reported in NY Times. Legally, he did not have to – and other big tech companies have dragged their feet when it comes to policing extremist content. The paper also ran an open letter to Walmart’s CEO, urging Doug McMillon to take a stand against guns. Will he?

Above and beyond that, getting involved in culture wars, and picking gratuitous political fights seems to be a perilous idea for these tense and divided times.

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