How Businesses Can Balance Strategy and Authenticity When Speaking on Social Movements

Post by Toby Cox, Clutch

Businesses and the public relations industry have a tenuous relationship with authenticity, especially when it comes to corporate social responsibility and speaking up about social movements.

The question of authenticity sometimes arises when a company announces its support for a social issue or cause.

Although most people (71%) think that companies should take a stance on social movements, they unsure whether businesses are genuine and whether it even matters as long as it raises awareness for an important issue or cause.

Most people think businesses support social movements for self-serving reasons, like to earn more money (29%), attract specific customers (20%), and earn media coverage (19%).

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Twenty-eight percent of people (28%) think businesses support social movements because they care about the issues the movement addresses.

Of course, these reasons aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible for a business to both care about an issue and recognize that speaking up about it will earn them more money, customers, and media coverage.

PR experts actually recommend businesses approach speaking up on social movements in ways that make sense for their brand.

“There’s nothing wrong with social responsibility being a strategic decision, but it should also be one that you strongly believe in and are willing to stand up for,” said Josh Weiss, CEO of 10 to 1 Public Relations.

Businesses that balance strategy and authenticity when they choose to speak up on social movements and issues do what’s best for their brand, employees, customers, and the movement itself.

Identify Which Issues Align with Your Brand Purpose

Businesses that have a strong understanding of their brand purpose will have an easier time identifying which issues are relevant to their brand and which they can stay silent on.

“Your corporate purpose is your North Star in determining whether to respond to certain movements,” said Steve Cody, CEO of Peppercomm digital communications firm.

Patagonia, for example, have always aligned its brand purpose around the environment and environmental issues.

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In 2018, Patagonia announced that it will donate the money saved from the tax break to environmental organizations. Its customers supported this bold, political statement because they have come to expect Patagonia to stance unwavering on issues regarding the environment.

“I’m not in the business to make clothes,” said Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, in an interview. “I’m not in the business to make more money for myself… Patagonia exists to put into action the recommendations I read about in books to avoid environmental collapse. That’s the reason I’m in business — to try to clean up our own act, and try to influence other companies to do the right thing, and try to influence our customers to do the right thing.”

Patagonia identifies issues surrounding the environment and conservation as a central component of its brand purpose and has never wavered from that stance.

Consider Your Stakeholders

Businesses typically have a lot of stakeholders to consider, such as funders, employees, and customers.

Every business’s first goal is to make enough money and grow. Taking a stance on a social movement can either help businesses elevate their brand and increase revenue or negatively impact their brand.

This is why it is important for businesses to consider not only their brand purpose, but how their stakeholders will react to them speaking out on a social movement.

Nike, for example, considered its brand purpose before launching its 2018 “Dream Crazy” ad that featured former NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick as its narrator.

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The ad featured 16 athletes that have overcome challenges and that challenge people’s stereotypes of what an elite athlete looks like.

When the ad was first launched, it received harsh criticisms and people showed their dissent by burning Nike shoes.

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However, shortly after the ad’s release, Nike’s sales went up, reflecting that most of their customers supported the message of the ad.

Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick as the ad’s narrator was a strategic one.

“They made their decision with intent,” said Jen Fry, a social justice educator. “It was very data-driven, knowing who their clientele is and what they’ll accept.”

Think About How Your Stance Can Both Elevate Your Brand and Contribute to the Movement

Authenticity and strategy complement each other when it comes to businesses deciding whether to take a stance on a social issue.

By identifying the issues that are a natural fit for their brand and by considering their stakeholders, businesses can do what’s best for both their brand and the movement they address.

About the Author

Toby Cox is a content writer and marketer at Clutch, a B2B research and reviews firm, where she covers public relations firms and industry news.

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Communications Lessons From the Government Shutdown

By Lawrence J. Parnell, Associate Professor, Strategic PR, The George Washington University

With the government shutdown now exceeding 30 days, it’s worth asking: – Are there any lessons we, as communications professionals, can learn from this ordeal?

Given the current state – no end in sight and no talks scheduled  – the simple answer is NO. Neither side has distinguished itself in either its communications strategy or public behavior.

However, maybe there are lessons we can learn? At the very least: How not to communicate during a labor dispute or a government shutdown.

A few examples:

  • Don’t let emotions – or scorekeeping – drive communications strategy or tactics
  • Don’t negotiate in the public media (or on line either)
  • Exercise restraint in your comments (limit the posturing and “gotcha” quotes)
  • Limit the use of surrogates and control their messages
  • Remember the stakeholders (e.g. employees, citizens) are more important than you
  • Ultimately no one “wins” or “loses.” Let that go. A settlement is, by definition, a compromise.

While I do not have “the solution” to end this drama – maybe we could get back to actually negotiating? That would be a good start.

The silver lining – if there is one – is learning how essential government services are in our everyday lives and gaining an appreciation for the workers who provide them to all of us.

No one wins when everyone is focused on “winning” the battle – and ok with losing the war.

Don’t forget the old adage: “Never get in a pissing contest with a skunk – you’ll both end up a smelly mess.”

Here’s hoping for a reasonable settlement – for all of our sakes – soon.

Crisis Management in the Age of Social Media

By Aaron Ellis, Professional Development Committee member

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If you attended the National Capital Chapter’s “Crisis Management in the Age of Social Media” professional development event Dec. 6 at Hager Sharp in downtown Washington, you probably walked away feeling you invested your time wisely.

For most, it was their first interaction with crisis management expert and instructor Brian Ellis. A former broadcast journalist who is now executive vice president for Minneapolis-headquartered Padilla public relations and who also teaches crisis management at Virginia Commonwealth University, Ellis’ riveting, rapid-fire lessons about responding to various crises reminded participants that advance preparation is the key to success.  

In today’s age of 24/7 news cycles, where media must constantly produce content and anybody with a smart phone (“citizen journalists”) can record an event and post it online within minutes, the timeline as to who controls the narrative of a story has collapsed to mere minutes. That means professional communicators and the organizations they represent must anticipate questions in advance to tell their side any story, or risk losing the advantage.

With the steep decline in professional journalists over the past two decades, public relations practitioners now outnumber reporters five-to-one. That leaves citizen journalists to fill in the gap.  Ellis said a typical citizen journalist’s response to getting a news event onto social media is two to three minutes after it begins. He said the first hour of a news event is the only window available for public relations professionals to shape the story. After that, it’s mostly damage control and trying to correct errors and misperceptions.

According to Ellis, there are three steps for effectively communicating during a crisis:

  1. Identify what audiences want and need to know by writing out in advance the questions they are most likely to ask.
  2. Based on the anticipated questions, develop three key messages and short, memorable quotes to go with them.
  3. Practice your messages and quote(s) out loud, honing your transitions until they’re seamless.

Ellis said the key messages should focus on: a) showing compassion for those impacted; b) providing information about your organization’s crisis response plan, and c) explaining your organization’s crisis investigation and how to ensure something similar doesn’t happen again.

In Padilla’s online Crisis IQ test, a recent sampling showed that only 21 percent of participants felt “well prepared” to communicate effectively in a crisis, while 63 percent said they didn’t have a solid plan. Seventy-one percent felt they didn’t practice their crisis plan often enough and 86 percent said they weren’t prepared to manage the social media onslaught of a crisis that affected their organization and its brand.

In today’s 24-hour news cycle, Ellis noted that the “media beast” must constantly be fed. To that end, he highly recommends creating a dark website that can be quickly engaged in a crisis, then reviewing and updating its content regularly. He also reminded workshop participants that an organization’s internal audiences can be either their greatest allies or worst enemies in a crisis, depending on how they are treated and kept informed.

“In a crisis, the best strategy is to always play offense and be out there telling a positive story,” he said. “By pointing your audience to what they perceive to be inside information, they’ll pay more attention to your side of the story.”

Walking the Tightrope-Advice for DMV Advocacy and PR pros after the 2018 Midterms

By Lawrence J. Parnell, Associate Professor, George Washington University

Walkin’ the tightrope between wrong and right
Walkin’ the tightrope both day and night

Lyrics: Stevie Ray Vaughn – Tightrope

Now that we are past the 2018 Mid Terms it’s time to consider the way forward for area communications professionals.

First, where are we? In Congress, the results were mixed – the House went one way, the Senate the other. Women and veterans won elections, and some are ascending to important positions in the political and government arenas. Several key states have changed Governors. State and local governments are in flux as well.

Let’s begin with the realization that this is how it will be for up to two years. Two entrenched camps in Congress seeking an advantage over the other, while the White House bobs and weaves like a fighter trying to avoid the knockout punch. “Crazy Town”, indeed.

So, how do we defend/enhance corporate reputations; advance causes or represent clients?

The short answer is we must be constantly alert and aware of public opinion about our issue, cause or client – not to mention the latest Tweet from you know who. We need to be responsive and effective without losing our balance or our voice. And, we must be ethical throughout – even if others are not – or we risk damaging our own reputations.

How do we do all that?

In a recent outlook piece in Holmes Report, Bill Dalbec of APCO’s DC office suggests:

“The idea that you can do your stakeholder mapping, and know where everyone is going to be, is out the window. (The current climate) is really forcing companies and trade associations and others to be more agile and adapt on the fly, try new things and constantly be reinventing themselves.”

SKDKnickerbocker managing partner Hilary Rosen, quoted here as well agrees: “Since the issues have become more divisive, (organizations) need to work harder to get their point across,” she said. “The stakes have gotten higher from both sides.”

Truly, companies and organizations are being challenged like never before. Our students tell us they came to GWU to learn how to leverage social media, understand global trends and interpret public policy to be more effective.

We think they are on the right track. We add a basic understanding of finance and business – which is required if you are trying to navigate the intersection of Main Street, Wall Street, Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Ave.

Clearly, the next few years won’t be boring. If we are successful, and avoid falling, we can bring value to our clients, companies, candidates or causes. Good luck – and be careful!

Issue, Impact, Importance, and Results: What We Learned at “A Modern Approach to Grow Clients and Accounts”

By: Kathleen Boyles, News Generation

What’s the biggest issue you face in growing clients and accounts? On November 28, PRSA-NCC hosted an event with keynote speaker Ian Altman to help us get to the bottom of this question, and how we can overcome it. Altman, a former technology and service business executive, works to inspire and educate audiences with a unique approach to sales and marketing. His approach focuses on growing clients and accounts through integrity and teaching professionals how customers make their decisions.

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Thoughts from the National Board

By Sam Villegas, APR, Mid Atlantic District Director, PRSA National Board

As my first two-year term on the National Board of PRSA comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on the experience, in search of the lessons I can impart and take with me into my next term. It’s been a challenging couple of years, but strangely, I don’t feel drained or defeated by the challenges. In fact, sitting here thinking back on the year and looking forward to next, I feel hopeful, empowered and wiser for the wear. And I think that’s because of three things: gratitude, patience and perspective.

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