CW Senior Editor Jessica Burnette-Lemon asked industry influencer Dorothy Crenshaw to weigh in on when brands should be become advocates for political and social issues, and how to do so credibly. Crenshaw speaks frequently on brand-building, marketing to women, and reputation topics. She serves on the board of Charity Navigator and is a regular blogger for the American Marketing Association's Executive Circle. After serving in roles at Grey Advertising and Edelman Worldwide, she founded Crenshaw Communications in 2009.
What kind of criteria should communication/PR professionals consider when advising CEOs about taking a stand on political or social issues?
First, it's critical to have clear goals for communicating any position involving social or political advocacy. Advocacy works as a blunt instrument. It's not necessarily useful for attracting new customers; rather, it builds or deepens relationships with like-minded people. It is how an organization and its brand become truly relevant to values-driven groups of customers and others. It's also important to ask the simple question: Is the stand consistent with our values? For a position to make sense for a corporate brand, it should speak to the beliefs of the company's most important stakeholders---usually customers and employees. Remember when Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy spoke against marriage equality? It generated a lot of coverage, much if it negative, and it sparked boycotts. Yet it wasn't really a departure from the chain's values. Chick-fil-A has openly embraced what it sees as traditional Christian practices---its stores are closed on Sundays, for example. The controversy wasn't particularly good for the brand, and Cathy ultimately vowed to keep his political opinions to himself, but it didn't damage Chick-fil-A with its core customers. Contrast that with former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's recent flirtation with a U.S. presidential run as an independent candidate. Schultz is no longer chairman and is free to do as he chooses, but he remains closely aligned with the brand he built. An independent run (which many progressives see as a potential spoiler candidacy) and Schultz's comments about tax reform could harm Starbucks' business precisely because they seem counter to the values of vocal customers. That's where a company or brand can have difficulty.
What kind of messaging works best in these types of statements?
That depends in part on the situation, and what the corporation's goals are. The most important thing is credibility. To be credible, the messaging should be linked to a tangible commitment to the issue: a decision to offer financial or human support, or one that takes the business in a new direction. It should be clear in explaining the rationale, drawing a bright line from the stance to the values of the business, its customers, and its employees. Some CEOs, like tech entrepreneurs, can get away with personal or emotional messaging. For example, when Marc Benioff led a corporate response to the Indiana state law allowing businesses to refuse service to gay or transgender people, he didn't play it safe. Instead of a corporate statement like, œThe legislation doesn't reflect our values, he called it œbrutal, œunfair and œunjust, while outlining how Salesforce would cut back its business in the state. That's Benioff's style. But most CEOs will be more comfortable with more measured and less divisive communication. It's a wise strategy for a public company CEO to signal his/her awareness of ramifications to reassure stakeholders like investors. For example, when Dick's Sporting Goods announced it would no longer sell assault weapons, CEO Ed Stack warned that the move wouldn't œbe positive from a sales and traffic standpoint. But he explained it both in a social and business context, citing the benefit from reducing the chain's exposure from the weapons industry as well as its support for greater gun safety measures. Stack looked smart when Dick's earnings proved slightly better than the guidance offered.
What are some of the potential drawbacks of CEOs speaking out on social or political issues?
There will always be pushback. If the corporation or CEO somehow stumbles into voicing a position that's premature or wrong, or if it's based on a personal opinion, it should and can be retracted. But in general, the worst thing a CEO can do is back down from a carefully considered stance due to social pressure. You end up angering both parties when you do that, and the company looks weak or unprincipled in the bargain. If a corporate brand adopts a position on a controversial or divisive issue like immigration, for example, it should be prepared to stick with it for the long term. That means that corporate communication, customer service, and employee communication need to be aligned and prepared to handle questions from stakeholders. It often means the company should brace for protests and/or prepare responses to outside groups and add trained staff to handle the load. It's a real commitment, and one that the corporation must be ready for. The preparation makes all the difference.
How should communication professionals prepare for fallout from messaging about social or political issues? Are there any recent case studies that could provide some pointers (or cautionary tales)?
Imagine being a corporate communication officer for Dick's Sporting Goods when your CEO announces you will no longer carry so-called assault weapons. (To be clear, I have no inside information here, only observations.) The company is quickly targeted by well-organized pro-gun groups. The media relations staff's phones blow up with hundreds of inquiries. President Trump may even rage-tweet about the announcement. HR reports that employees have questions and there's mixed opinion among the workforce. Calls and emails flood in from both critics and supporters. Activist groups begin to organize boycotts, while others signal their approval. In short, all hell breaks loose. Even positive feedback can add to the chaos if the organization isn't prepared. Advance prep can keep the company and its workforce from being overwhelmed by the response and help it harness and leverage the support it gets. If serious pushback is anticipated, a good corporate communicator will reach out to influencers and third-party groups to activate their members for cover. It will, of course, have media statements, a CEO statement or video, and Q&As at the ready. It will consider staffing up in customer service and offering tools and scripts for responding to irate calls and emails for all public-facing employees. The list goes on; the best rule of thumb is to over-prepare for the public and media reaction to any controversy.
JBL: Do you think this trend will continue? Why or why not?
Yes, it will continue. I think we're seeing a real change in the role of the corporate CEO in the U.S. in particular, in part due to the loss of public confidence in other institutions, like government and even faith-based organizations. It's one thing when you have so-called maverick CEOs becoming social advocates. We expect it from privately held companies, or from a colorful entrepreneur like Benioff of Salesforce. But a year ago in his annual letter to CEOs, Laurence Fink of BlackRock gave leading businesses their marching orders to show business "makes a positive contribution to society." Fink essentially told corporate America that if it wants the support of BlackRock, the largest investor in the world at US$6 trillion in assets, it must do well by doing good. Last week, he doubled down in his 2019 letter, saying œStakeholders are pushing companies to wade into sensitive social and political issues---especially as they see governments failing to do so effectively. Like the CEOs he's challenging, Fink himself earned pushback. But I feel this type of pressure will only grow. Trumpism is a factor, as is the relatively robust economy, because CEOs are more willing to risk a bold stand. But the push isn't just coming from corporate leaders. It's coming from the public, especially the younger demographic whose influence will be felt for a generation or more.