PR News | Should brands comment on major social movements?

Kate Hartley

Should a brand make a commitment to support a social movement? We get asked this question more than any other when brands approach us for stress testing and training.

The great social movements define an age. The 1960s conjure up images concerning the civil rights movement. The 1970s brought women’s rights, gay rights and protests to Vietnam. The 1980s saw AIDS activism. Today, big issues facing us as a society include climate change, racial justice, and trans rights.

Organizations are increasingly expected to have an opinion on these complex and important issues. But they are afraid of being wrong.

Brands speaking out on the big issues of the day seems like a new thing – in the past, so many organizations avoided getting involved in anything they perceived as politics – but in fact, brands have always had the power, if not always the desire, to bring about change.

This article is featured in O’Dwyer’s Jan. ’22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer’s Guide Magazine
(see the PDF version)

A few years ago, I found myself at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. I read a story there that made me realize that brand activism, as we call it now, is nothing new.

In 1964, the year segregation officially ended in the United States, Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against racial injustice, and the city of Atlanta, King’s hometown , organized a gala dinner to celebrate it. The city invited prominent business leaders to buy dinner tickets, but King was, at the time, still seen as a controversial figure, racism was rampant and none of the city’s elite would attend .

The dinner-planning team reached out to Coca-Cola, which was – and still is – based in Atlanta.

The president of Coke at the time was a man named J Paul Austin from Georgia. He had spent time in South Africa where he had seen firsthand the negative effects of apartheid not only on society, but on the economy. He agreed to intervene, and his letter to Atlanta is preserved in the museum. He said: “It’s embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel laureate… We are an international company. The Coca-Cola Company doesn’t need Atlanta. You all have to decide if Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.

The dinner sold out.

It was a significant moment. Coca-Cola was obviously a big employer in Atlanta. But more than that, it was part of a politically charged soft drink industry. The soda fountains had been severed and had been the subject and site of protests, including by King himself.

This created a connection between Coca-Cola and the civil rights movement in Atlanta: the Civil Rights Museum is now located on land that was donated by Coca-Cola.

Now we can wonder if this was a moral decision for Coca-Cola or if it was motivated by future profit. Maybe the brand could see how the world was changing and wanted to be on the right side of history. Whatever the motivation, it was the right thing to do.

This shows that getting involved in politics is nothing new for brands. They can make significant and positive contributions to society. These contributions can make good business sense. And, like Coke, it can mean landing on the right side of history.

Organizations are increasingly expected to get involved. Research from Kantar Media shows that people, especially younger generations, like Millennials and Gen Z, expect brands to take a stand on social issues. Sometimes not expressing a point of view can feel like complicity or a failure to do the right thing. Last year, Netflix tweeted “To be silent is to be complicit” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. What does he say about an organization that doesn’t voice support for racial justice, human rights, or the fight against climate change?

It sounds simple. But, as we saw during the Black Lives Matter movement, organizations will face a backlash if they voice support for a social movement when their own actions and track record don’t add up.

Kantar’s research also shows that while consumers want brands to get involved and help bring about change, they want meaningful actions, not empty words. Findings from Edelman’s Empowered Employee Study show that employees also want meaningful action and are increasingly choosing their jobs based on their personal beliefs, values ​​and goals.

Thus, brands take a stand on the things that matter to their customers and employees. If consumers are becoming more aware of how they spend their money and employees are more aware of the brands they work for, it’s not just an ethical issue for brands. It is a financial question and a question of talent.

You must follow the example. Communication must come after action. And when you decide to take a stand on a social issue, it comes down to two key things:

Do you have permission to comment? If you want to take a stand, you need to take demonstrable action on the issue you’re talking about, not just pay lip service. The behavior should match your message. You must have earned the right to speak up and not trivialize the issue. Are you adding value to the debate or just adding noise?

Does the position you take align with your values ​​and can you prove it over time? The reason Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick worked for the brand was because it was consistent with past behavior and the brand’s stated values. If a few people protested Nike’s support, it wouldn’t hurt the brand in the end.

Above all, your position must be authentic, it must be true to the brand’s behavior and values, and it must be in line with what people expect of you.


Kate Hartley is the co-founder of a stress-testing company Polpeo, and author of “Communicate in times of crisis(Page Kogan, 2019).


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