When and How Corporations & Their Leaders Should Chime in on Social & Political Issues

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In November, Patagonia announced it was going to donate the entirety of the $10 million it had received in GOP tax cuts to fight global warming. A couple months before that, Nike released an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick (a precursor to its February “Dream Crazier” ad calling out gender-based double standards). And In January, Gilette called out toxic masculinity in its “The Best Men Can Be” commercial.

Every one of these decisions—and many more corporate statements on social and political issues—has inspired equal amounts of support and criticism, but they’re part of what looks to be a new wave in a long-growing trend of corporate activism.

In 2016, when we had started to see corporate activism surging—from Tim Cook’s response to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to widespread corporate backlash against North Carolina’s HB2 to Facebook executives’ conversations about issues like paternity leave and gender equality—we took a deep dive into how corporate leaders can best leverage their platforms to engage with social issues, without hurting their brands.

Today, a new wave of corporate activists begin raising their own voices. In fact, RetailMeNot’s 2019 Retailer Playbook reports that 87 percent of retailers say taking a stand on social issues is worth the risk, considering 61 percent of consumers will recommend brands that align with their social values. So we wanted to take a moment to offer a primer for leaders and organizations weighing the benefits of speaking out.

5 Keys to Corporate Activism

In our early research, we learned that, while corporate activism is generally viewed favorably, with buyers more likely to support brands when they agree with the CEOs’ positions—and more likely not to buy if they disagree—there is still some concern about alienating both customers and employees by jumping into social and political discussions.

As such, it’s important for leaders who’ve decided to speak out craft their messages carefully to ensure they resonate the right way with the public. Here are five communication characteristics common to successful executive activists:

1.   Focus on the community

Audiences are more likely to engage with and be persuaded by messages if they feel like they are directly impacted. Our research found that CEO activists are capitalizing on that, using 14.7 percent more inclusive language—the plural and second person pronouns that make the audience part of the message, as well as the words that evoke a sense of collaboration, openness, and engagement—than the average executive communicator.

This language enables listeners to feel like they’re part of the movement, and it instills a sense of responsibility to stand with the executive or brand in enacting change. Consider Gilette’s commercial, which uses “we” language—“we can’t hide from it,” “we can’t laugh it off”— to create the clear sense that the men watching the video are a very real part of the dialogue. The narrator is just preaching to audiences, but making “the best a man can get” something that the community as a whole—and not just Gilette—is striving for.

2.   Speak authentically

We also found that, when corporate leaders speak or write about social issues, they communicate 31.6 percent more authentically than the average executive. Effective corporate activist communication includes no “holier-than-thou” soapboxing. Instead, executive activists should be speaking in more natural tones, opening conversations rather than preaching.

As we’ve discussed at length, authenticity goes a long way in building connections with audiences. When leaders appear to be putting on airs or “spinning” their messages in a disingenuous way, customers will turn the other way. But when customers feel like these leaders are speaking honestly and authentically, they’re much more likely to listen and engage.

3.   Make yourself clear

There’s no question that today’s political and social issues are incredibly complex, but effective CEO activists are generally skilled at communicating their stances in a way the average audience can easily grasp. Our research found that these leaders communicate 31 percent more clearly than the average executive communicator.

Several factors go into measuring the clarity of a communication, but the simplest way to think about it is in terms of structure: a clear communicator uses simple sentence structures and everyday language to break complex issues into an easy-to-follow path of cause and effect. (Learn more about the importance of clarity.)

4.   Establish trust

To inspire followers in any setting, leaders have to work hard to demonstrate they have their audience’s best interests at heart. And the same is true with activist CEOs, who we found come across as 37 percent more trustworthy in their social and political communications than the average executive communicator.

In an era of “fake news” and general distrust in leadership and media, we look for speakers who can provide the audience with a comprehensive understanding of key points and take ownership of their messages through personalized, active language. When corporations and their leaders can do more than plant their feet on one side of the line or the other—explaining why they believe what they believe, how they came to that conclusion, and what it means for the community—audiences will be more likely to trust in their message and their brand.

5.   Draw clear connections to the business’s bottom line

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, we found that a key best practice for CEO activists is to draw a clear connection to how political and social issues may affect the business’s bottom line. One PR firm’s research on executive activism found that the American public is a cynical group, with only 14 percent of respondents crediting altruism as the reason for a CEO to speak out, and nearly 20 percent unsure why CEOs are speaking up at all.

As a result, we recommend leaders be clear about what they serve to gain by leveraging their platforms in this way. It goes back to building trust through authenticity: if you’re honest with your audience about why you value what you do, they’ll stop looking for shady, ulterior motives and focus instead on the core of the message.

When it comes to championing social issues, corporations and their leaders have a fine line to walk. If you’re considering using your brand’s platform to sound off on politics, we encourage you to read our full white paper on executive activism, and contact us to learn more about how Quantified Communications can help your team craft effective messaging on the issues that are most important to you.