Politics, Social Movements and PR: Strategies During an Age of Social Activism

If you’re a consumer of news and information online (and if you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly are), it won’t come as a surprise that the Dictionary.com People’s Choice Word of the Year for 2020 was “unprecedented.”

Unprecedented.

It seemed like that eyebrow-raising adjective was everywhere. From the COVID-19 pandemic to racial equity and social justice movements to the inequities both laid bare, so much of what transpired over the last 15 months or so is unlike anything we’ve seen before – especially in such a short period of time.

What’s also unprecedented is the level of corporate engagement on issues like these. Just a few years ago many companies would never have thought of addressing racial equity and social justice, particularly in a public forum, for fear of alienating a segment of their customer base – either because of a forceful stance or fear of saying the wrong thing and risking ridicule or, worse, condemnation.

Photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash

Fast forward to 2021, and corporations, nonprofits and other organizations that thoughtfully consider their public persona are wisely strategizing about how to engage on social and political issues going forward.

Understanding the potential risks and benefits about speaking out on a particular issue, aligning communications with the organization’s values and consulting with outside advisors can help lead to more effective communication – and help avoid some nasty pitfalls in the process.

Risk/Benefit Analysis

Many organizations feel there’s an inherent risk in speaking out on a particular social or political issue; that whatever they say or post will be scrutinized, especially in a social media landscape where condemnation seems to trump compassion. While it is often difficult to know when to speak out, weighing the pros and cons of a proactive message can help identify possible obstacles – and opportunities.

One key to this exercise is exploring not only the risks and benefits of speaking out, but also the risks and benefits of not speaking out. While action often feels more risky than inaction, there are times when inaction can be just as risky, particularly when stakeholders are looking to an organization to speak out to support a particular group, cause, or position.

As part of this analysis, it’s helpful to take stock of the situation. Focus on who the audience is, the level of passion/anger around the issue, and the degree to which the audience is looking for leadership, comfort or support.

It’s also worth evaluating if your commentary will be seen as taking an overtly political stance versus showing support for a social cause or movement. The lines here admittedly become blurry pretty fast, but generally speaking, statements in support of social movements, groups or causes that might matter to your audience (ie: Black Lives Matter, gender equity, LGBTQ rights) can help illustrate your values without necessarily being seen as politically-motivated (ie: voicing support for a specific candidate or piece of legislation).

In such a charged political environment, it is worth working with your communications team or third party to draft some reactive language as well, explaining the thinking behind a statement, in case some interpret support for a social movement as having political underpinnings.

Stay True To Values

Does speaking out on a specific issue provide an opportunity to convey, support or emphasize values? If the organization has traditionally spoken up for marginalized communities and there is an issue or national event that provides an opportunity for affirmation, vested audiences may expect and appreciate an organization using its platform to support those foundational values.

For organizations that have not taken a stand in the past, speaking out, as long as it’s part of a genuine and comprehensive plan, could help underscore a commitment to organizational change. Certain moments in time represent great opportunity to show leadership when customers, consumers and others want to know – now more than ever before – what the companies they do business with stand for.

Staying focused on organizational values also helps provide clarity on which issues to speak on. Commenting on every sociopolitical issue is unwise – not only can it come across as pandering but it can dilute the impact of speaking out on the issues that truly are most important. Understanding which core issues connect to values can help organizations focus on powerfully addressing issues that matter to their key audiences.

Consult With Outside Voices

Want to avoid a costly and avoidable misstep? Get outside the echo chamber. A thoughtful and experienced third-party communications team can be a helpful part of thinking through which audiences may be impacted and how, along with the ways in which the message can be clearly and quickly communicated.

Developing a group of trusted advisors who can be called to consult on messaging, focus and timing can help leaders understand not only how their commentary is coming out, but how it is coming across. Make sure your sounding board is diverse and consists of viewpoints representing as many different stakeholders as possible. This can also help organizations to see more clearly how a potential social stance may be interpreted as a political one depending on the interpretation of the stakeholder.

This doesn’t have to be a highly structured group that meets to discuss political issues every week. It can be an informal, broad circle of people who understand the organization, its audiences and its mission and values.

Another helpful approach is to consider how the statement will age. How will speaking out or not speaking out on this issue be viewed once the immediate news cycle has receded?

It’s often difficult to think clearly in the heat of an emotionally charged moment. Take the long view. Does the current situation provide an opportunity to affirm values or show growth in a way that will still matter next week/month/year? Does the issue connect to your audiences in a way that will resonate with them even after the clamor and noise of the moment dies down? These are tough, thorny issues to grapple with and the right answer isn’t always readily apparent. No one said it was easy. These are, after all, unprecedented times.

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