Digital media has played a pivotal role in raising the social awareness of society, organizations and companies. Particularly, sensitive social issues have inspired businesses and organizations to declare a stance and incorporate that stance into their organization’s culture. Audience affinity or distaste for a brand or organization can and has been influenced by their alignment with the personal values of their target audience.
Incorporating social impact into a strategic plan is an important way to increase social awareness. However, as organizations have become more vocal about their position on social issues, some have faced backlash for their method of declaring solidarity. As companies begin to integrate social responsibility into their organization’s framework, it is critical that their communication strategy is mindful of its execution.
Many organizations have sought opportunities to support social issues. Audience sentiment can be improved by being recognized as an advocate for marginalized communities and social movements. There have been several instances of companies facing backlash for their approach to advocacy attempts. Without a proper strategy, attempts to show solidarity can appear insincere—and in some cases opportunistic. Companies must not only consider the message they want to convey, but also the vehicle in which they convey it.
Capitalizing on hashtags, a popular trend, or holidays and events is a tried-and-true way to amplify the visibility of an organization. Whether that engagement exists as a seasonal Instagram post or witty tweets about Valentine’s Day, there is an expectation and acceptation of organizations using these moments and events to improve engagement. However, there are several recent instances of organizations and companies receiving backlash and negative publicity for applying this strategy to our most recent federal holiday, Juneteenth.
Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. The holiday has been observed annually on June 19 in various parts of the United States but is now recognized as a federal holiday since President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in June 2021. The context of the holiday.
Message vs. Messenger
Companies incorporate pumpkin spice into their products to celebrate fall. They use bunnies and pastels to welcome Easter. How does an organization or company authentically celebrate the meaning of Juneteenth? We must first acknowledge the context of the celebration. Chattel slavery in America recognized African Americans as a product and source of capital. Organizations’ attempts to engage with and highlight holiday were viewed as commercialization leaving a negative impression on their intended audience.
A similar issue arises when engaging with advocacy issues, communities and causes. Authenticity is challenged when an attempt to engage is perceived as an attempt to capitalize on a marginalized community. Companies must consciously prioritize support of the cause or community over visibility and/or self-interest. This shift will oftentimes mean supporting the message but ceding the role of messenger.
Listen. Amplify. Collaborate
Authenticity comes from understanding. Understanding comes from listening. Having input from communities is important to understanding how to be an ally. Organizations can demonstrate their support by using their resources to create a space for stories to be told. They can increase that allyship by using their platforms to amplify the messages coming from established and influential members of a cause or community. Recognizing leaders and influencers in a space improves the chance of engaging with your intended audience and demonstrates awareness of the existing landscape. Additionally, organizations can look for opportunities to collaborate with local organizations doing the work on the ground. Collaboration with existing social justice organizations aligns you with the intended goal of demonstrating support in a way that will be well-received.
Digital media has always been a fast-paced every changing medium. It should come as no surprise that conversations about allyship and advocacy are always changing and updating. When organizations decide to wade into this territory it is important to have an overall understanding of the mission. Before engaging with social issues, organizations should first understand the landscape. Who is leading the conversations, what does successful advocacy look like, and how can an organization utilize its resources best? It is also vital to accept that some organizations have made missteps which might lead their attempts to be viewed with trepidation.
Accept that some audience members will not be swayed. Instead, lean into the authenticity of your work. Work with those who can show you how to demonstrate your sincerity. Listen and learn from those who have the experience and understand the complexities. Amplify those voices who have the experience and the influence. Actions speak louder than words. The value will reveal itself in the sincerity.