Back in the day, we were all advised not to speak about polarizing topics in mixed company. This meant not at school functions, cocktail parties—and most definitely not at work. You weren’t to talk about religion or politics with anyone outside your home unless you knew the conversation would be “safe” among friends.

The idea was that you could easily make someone mad if you discussed those things in public—and end up losing friends or, worse, customers. 

Just about every executive in the world today “grew up” with that mantra. They got to the top of their career ladders by abiding by that rule.

And then George Floyd was murdered, and literally overnight, executives were told, “You have to say something. Now.”

It provided a huge opportunity for communicators because we are best suited to help executives with messaging and learn when their organizations should act as activists. Or not. 

Since 2020, there have been a lot of successes when it comes to communicating an organization’s values and sticking up for cultural and societal change. And there have been miserable flops.

The most recent, of course, is Bud Light and Target. There are lots of lessons to be learned from the successes and the failures.

You Don’t Want Performative Activism 

Remember back when the world shut down, and every organization on earth sent an email that said, “Out of an abundance of caution…” I remember joking with colleagues about how no one cared that your favorite paper towel brand was shutting down out of an abundance of caution. 

This is often referred to as “performative activism,” or empty gestures made solely for PR purposes—to make it look like you’re taking action without necessarily having the values to back it up. 

It often involves surface-level engagement without any substantial commitment or action. These empty gestures may include posting generic statements on social media, temporarily changing logos or slogans, or engaging in short-lived campaigns that lack long-term effectiveness. Performative activism can be seen as insincere and can lead to backlash if organizations are perceived as prioritizing their image over genuine efforts for social progress.

It lacks authenticity and seems to be stated only because it’s what the rest of the world expects. 

Yes, we needed to know if the grocery store down the street was shutting down entirely or if they reduced their hours. Same for restaurants and pharmacies. We didn’t need to know if the tire company was doing it.

Performative activism. 

You Do Want to Be Authentic

On the flip side, organizations that align their actions with stated values have the potential to cultivate trust and foster genuine connections. When organizations demonstrate consistency between their words and deeds, they establish a sense of authenticity. This alignment signifies a commitment to values-driven decision-making and ethical practices, which can build a foundation of trust and credibility. 

By following through on their promises, organizations can show that their engagement with social issues is not merely performative but grounded in a genuine desire for positive change. 

This authenticity creates an opportunity for meaningful connections, as stakeholders perceive the organization as a reliable and principled ally in addressing societal challenges. Such genuine connections can lead to increased loyalty, advocacy, and a stronger bond between the organization and its stakeholders.

The First Step Is to Be Inclusive

As organizations look to create positive change, a crucial aspect of their communications is the need for inclusive dialogue. This entails amplifying marginalized voices and actively seeking out and engaging with different viewpoints. By facilitating open conversations and listening to a variety of opinions, organizations can foster an environment that encourages understanding, empathy, and growth…BEFORE they begin to speak externally. 

When combining a true sense of open conversation internally, communications pros should also set a path for conducting thorough research and analysis to grasp the sentiments, beliefs, and values of their customers. 

We’ve seen what can happen when they fail to do so, which is more than just being in the news for 24 hours—it results in reputational damage and lost trust. As Warren Buffet famously said, “If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation, I will be ruthless.”

That’s because, as we all know, it takes a lifetime to build trust and about 3.2 seconds to lose it if you do things incorrectly.

That’s not to say we should bury our heads in the sand and advise our clients or executives not to stand up for societal and cultural change. Au contraire! 

And Stay On Message

About a decade ago, Susan G. Komen decided to no longer fund Planned Parenthood—an organization they not only supported for several years, but leaned into their messaging and their values, too.

I remember watching Nancy Brinker, the founder of the organization, go on the morning news shows to talk about their decision—and how, seemingly every hour or two, she flip-flopped on their decision. 

At the time, I didn’t agree with their decision, but I always recognized that there is a lot that happens inside an organization that we are not privy to. What bothered me the most about the whole thing is Brinker didn’t stay on message and would change her mind based on who was asking the questions. 

Ultimately, they reversed their decision and Brinker stepped down. I still believe that had she kept on message and stood her ground, people would have been furious, but it wouldn’t have caused the backlash and reputational damage it did. I’m not sure they’ve fully recovered even 10 years later.

The Susan G. Komen situation is a great example of how not to do things. We have lots of those failures to look to, which provide a great opportunity for communications professionals to help an organization (or organizations) stand up for its beliefs. 

And hooray for them! We just have to help prepare everyone for what’s to come—and how to stand up to anyone we’re going to upset.

And Then Understand the Importance of Timing

One of the key things to consider is timing. Organizations must carefully consider the context and current events when addressing sensitive issues. Taking a reactive stance without a thorough understanding and thoughtful reflection can backfire and lead to accusations of insincerity or opportunism.

On the other hand, organizations that proactively anticipate and address societal concerns can demonstrate leadership and earn respect. By staying attuned to the pulse of society, communication professionals can help executives identify the right moment to engage in conversations about polarizing topics.

While Aligning Internally

As I mentioned, aligning internally is the most important thing to do before speaking externally. We once had a client who wanted us to revise their website copy. Their CEO wanted the copy to reflect a fun place to work—board games at lunchtime, booze at the end of every day, Cubs games throughout the summertime, and catered meals every week. Sounds like a fun place to work, right? The problem was, none of that was true. We talked to the CEO about the importance of displaying the same culture internally and externally. He didn’t care. That’s the copy he wanted. That’s why he’s a former client.

As it turns out, inconsistencies between what is communicated externally and the realities within the organization can result in credibility loss and erode trust. Our job is to facilitate conversations between executives and employees to ensure that values are lived and breathed throughout the organization. This internal alignment strengthens the organization’s authenticity and empowers employees to be genuine ambassadors of its values.

(That former client, BTW? They ended up going out of business because their investors got tired of the employee churn they had.)

Consider External Partnerships and Collaboration

In addition to internal alignment, external partnerships and collaborations can enhance an organization’s ability to advocate for change. We can help executives identify potential allies and forge meaningful partnerships with organizations, influencers, or community leaders that share similar values and objectives.

Collaborative efforts amplify the collective voice and demonstrate a commitment to advancing societal progress beyond self-interest. By fostering these partnerships, organizations can tap into the power of collective action and create lasting positive change.

Your job is to find the right partnerships and be ready for the backlash some can create, like what Bud Light experienced. I can armchair QB that situation all day, but I believe that had they done a better job of aligning their internal and external messaging and not backing down to the vocal minority, a bunch of their marketing team would not have lost their jobs.

Be Clear On Messaging

This is the one you should spend the most time on, particularly in coaching and training your spokespeople. I like to do some “if this, then that” planning. If we get backlash on this particular statement or action, we are going to take this stance. You are not going to make everyone happy—and that’s OK. But you should be prepared to hold your ground and have messaging ready for the naysayers. Doing so will ensure you’re serious about your actions and that you won’t back down because a few people yelled at you.

Understand There Will Be Risks

Speaking out, standing up for your values, and wanting to make change are not without risks. Your organization—or your client’s organizations—may face backlash and criticism, regardless of their intentions or actions. Developing robust crisis communication plans that anticipate potential challenges and prepare appropriate responses is crucial.

Properly Navigate Polarizing Topics 

Your job is to guide executives in anticipating different scenarios, crafting empathetic and transparent messages, and engaging in active listening and dialogue with stakeholders. Organizations can minimize reputational damage and swiftly regain public trust by effectively managing potential crises.

We are about to head into yet another contentious election year. And experts are predicting it’s going to be an election of artificial intelligence, which will make it even more contentious. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

This means you will need to become adept at adapting your strategies to effectively address polarizing topics. The days of avoiding those topics are long gone. As comms pros, we play a critical role in helping organizations do that while protecting and enhancing their reputations. 

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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