In today’s interconnected and increasingly activist world, more companies are expected to address constantly evolving social needs and expectations. Advocacy, or inaction, can define a corporate brand reputation for better or worse – and in record time.  As corporate playbooks are getting re-written on a daily basis to keep up with this rapidly changing environment, companies are asking: How do I respond in this day and age?

Then and Now

In 1970 economist Milton Friedman commented to the New York Times, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Today, corporate social responsibility brings with it much more complex and heightened expectations. “If the voices of business leaders seem amplified, that is perhaps because in such partisan times, few politicians can speak to both sides of the aisle, leaving a vacuum for business leaders to fill,” said writer David Gelles of the New York Times in 2017. 

Gelles’ suggestion that companies are stepping in to fill a societal void is reinforced by a November 2017 APCO Insight study.  It found 92 percent believe a company’s mission should contribute to society as a whole and not just serve customers. A full 88 percent believe solutions to today’s greatest problems facing society will rely on the resources and innovation of business. And 90 percent believe companies should be very/somewhat involved in addressing social issues. A new survey from APCO Insight among hyper-aware consumers finds companies are expected to take a stand on social issues because it's the right thing to do - not because it has a business impact.

 

insight corporate social responsibility research

 

Navigating the New Normal

Yet in any given week, companies can face a hit or miss public reaction when they enter (sometimes inadvertently) into the social issue space. Climate change. Immigration. Sexual orientation rights.  Race relations and sensitivity.  Gun safety.  Income opportunity.  Everything is on the table. 

The Ubers and Doves have come under fire. CEOs stepped in to very publicly address actions and lack of action related to Charlottesville.  Tech companies and others have found strength in numbers – sometimes in formal coalitions – on issues such as climate change and immigration.  Still others like Under Armour and Papa John’s have found themselves between a rock and a hard place toggling between more conservative- and liberal-minded consumers as companies shift and clarify their position, seemingly equally upsetting all consumers in the process. 

Ultimately, how companies address this new normal is by no means a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Know Your Brand Engagement Philosophy

What works for Starbucks as an activist brand seemingly behaving consistent with its customer base expectations is very different for a middle America-appealing brand like ALDI, who takes a much more reserved approach. And then you have those who take more of a uniter role, trying to bridge differences. Your brand may relate to these categories or fit somewhere else on that spectrum. The important thing is to know where you sit and stand by it.

brand-engagement-spectrum

Map Your Approach by Issue

When are you going to step into an issue publicly or with your internal audiences? How are you going to do that? And what are you going to say? The time to think through the issues is now; waiting for the conversation to heat up is often too late.

Map Approach by Issue

To Engage or Not to Engage

Some of the questions we ask when determining whether or how a client should engage on a particularly volatile social issue include:

  • Does the issue relate to our business?
  • Does the issue directly speak to our mission and/or values?
  • Is the issue part of our CSR/purpose platform?
  • Where do our consumers sit on the issue?  Employees?
  • Would we be an early, mid or late adopter?
  • Where are our competitors on the issue?
  • Can we engage with other like-minded companies?
  • Will engaging create expectations to act on other issues/situations?
  • Will our position restrict our ability to conduct future business?
  • Is it an important issue to weigh in on regardless?

For More on This Topic 

Here's a video from my colleague, Barie Carmichael, co-author of Reset: Business and Society in the New Social Landscape, who shares three things businesses need to know about operating in this new social landscape.

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Tina-Marie Adams

Tina-Marie Adams is managing director of APCO Worldwide’s Chicago office and is a more than 25 year communications veteran. Read More