Consumers expect brands to “stand for something.” Taking stands can embroil businesses in bitterly divisive cultural and political debates with no middle ground. Civic engagement can earn brands lots of attention, but also alienate a chunk of their clientele.
The Portland Business Journal explored the question of the risks and rewards of taking a stance by asking local public relations professionals what they advise brands to do. Most said it may be riskier for brands not to engage.
“It is increasingly difficult to stay neutral and ‘nonpolitical,’” says Darcie Meihoff, a Portland PR management consultant. “With societal issues that have a direct impact on the well-being of a company, its bottom line and its employees, leaders are increasingly forced to enter into the fray and stake out a stand. And more importantly, the public – especially younger consumers – often expects them to.”
When executives speak out on a hot issue, “they are not only speaking for themselves, but also for their company and brand. Any public disagreement with the stance could result in negative publicity not only for the individual, but also for the company as a whole,” explains Angie Galimanis, president of Portland-based Lawrence PR.
“More and more, the risks of not speaking out can be far greater,” claims Trever Cartwright of the Coraggio Group. “Silence can alienate employees and customers.”
The reward for taking a controversial stance is to “create champions for your organization, grow your audience, and potentially improve employee morale. It’s an opportunity to lead on something, and potentially make a difference,” according to Liz Fuller of Gard Communications. Meihoff adds, “Companies that walk the brand’s talk are often viewed as leaders and visionaries. Consumers do vote with their dollars, and if you stand up for an issue that’s also important to customers, you can deepen their loyalty and strengthen your brand’s reputation.”
For companies plunging into the waters of civic engagement, Tamra Chandler of PeopleFirm, advises, “To be an effective leader, any executive must be consistent both inside and outside their organizations. Employees want leaders who display integrity. You can’t be one person inside your organization and a different person outside.”
Cartwright counsels that business leaders should understand what they are getting into – and be willing to accept the upside and the downside. “If you don’t fully understand the matter, you’re not ready to take a stand – it’s that simple. Let the core values of your organization be your guide. If you’re clear on your values and they are truly core to what makes your organization tick, the decision to enter the discussion should be clear.”
Fuller adds, “Have a succinct and fact-based message. Offer solutions. Consider partnerships. When you roll it out, do so with a plan that extends beyond the first statement. Use humor.”
CFM wasn’t asked to comment, but here is our advice anyway. Entering the culture wars and political fray isn’t for everyone. There is a reason why families don’t talk politics over the dinner table. If you decide to wade in, don’t just put your toe in the water. Jump in with purpose.
Satisfying consumer expectations isn’t a sufficient reason to engage, regardless of the potential rewards. Engagement must flow from its brand promise. Nike featured Colin Kaepernick because kneeling on the sidelines before NFL games was his way to express his views on racial injustice. Kneeling was his way to “just do it.” Columbia Sportswear ran an ad that said, “Make America’s Parks Open Again” during the partial federal government shutdown, which carried an unmistakable message with a pitch perfect feel for the apparel maker’s brand personality.
Be prepared for some shock waves. Loyal customers may turn on you. Social media posts can be vicious. You will be expected to talk about your decision over and over again, both inside and outside the company. Let Ed Stack, the chairman and CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, the largest sporting goods retailer in the United States, be a guiding light for how to handle the aftermath of a stand.
After watching the survivors and parents of the Parkland school shooting, Stack announced Dick’s would no longer sell assault-style weapons and wouldn’t sell any firearms to anyone under 21 years old. A gun owner, a longtime Republican donor and a business leader in gun-friendly Western Pennsylvania, Stack shocked many of his friends and angered some of his customers, who called the actions a “slap in the face.” In an instant, Stack became the corporate face in America for gun control.
Stack calmly explains the reasons behind the decision. He admits to being emotionally touched by the sight of Parkland survivors. He also recounts how the Parkland shooter had legally purchased a gun from Dick’s. It wasn’t a gun used in the assault, but for Stack that didn’t matter. He saw the sale as a sign that guns laws needed to be shored up. It was a perspective, Stack says, that had been percolating for some time.
An NPR reported, “People who know Stack will say he does not make rash calls. ‘Every decision he makes in the company I think is very calculated, and he's made good decisions," said Jim Roddey, former chief executive of Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, home to Dick's Sporting Goods.…That business is his religion.”
Stack told a New York Times conference, “If we had a mulligan to do it all over again, we’d do it all over again.”
Business leaders weighing in on a contentious issue need the same kind of resolve as Stack. They need to be willing to take the heat for bringing up politics over dinner.