Societal discord is at an all-time high and it’s impacting how global businesses manage their reputation, recruit employees, and improve company culture. Media has become increasingly biased, information is less trustworthy, and opinions have intensified.
This year, Gallup found just 7% of Americans have “a great deal” of trust and confidence in the media, and 27% have “a fair amount.” Meanwhile, 28% of U.S. adults say they do not have very much confidence and 38% have none in newspapers, TV, or radio.
Yet even in our polarized society, corporate communicators and PR professionals working with companies that have embraced corporate purpose are now recognizing they have the responsibility—and the strong platform—to engage with controversial topics outside of their normal comfort zones. Whether a consumer brand or B2B technology platform, business remains one of the most trusted institutions, ahead of both government and media.
During CECP’s “Strategy & Impact: Viewpoints of the Nation: The Corporate Role in Amplifying Civic Engagement” roundtable, Fred Cook, Chair Emeritus, Golin, and Director of the Annenberg Center for Public Relations, University of Southern California, discussed how in 2022, several powerful forces have forged a new path for the communicator profession.
Polarization grew in almost every issue from voting to vaccines; the pandemic forced communicators to reassure customers, suppliers, and employees; and purpose compelled many companies to speak out on social issues for the first time. Before making a public stance, communicators may want to consider some important questions:
- When do we engage on societal issues important to our company’s key stakeholders?
- What issues do we directly address, what topics are better to avoid, and how many issues do we stand for?
- What sensitive issues that improve our company’s bottom line are best to speak out on?
This year’s USC Global Communication Report, The Future of Corporate Activism, helps PR professionals answer some of these questions as they operate in a divisive environment. The research found that 93% of PR professionals say they are spending more time in their jobs navigating societal issues than they did five years ago, and they expect these challenges will continue to increase. For PR professions, understanding how to navigate this new reality is acute.
While a company’s employees are frequently tapped when determining how and when to take a stance on a particular issue, all communicators are making daily decisions that have long-term impacts on their companies and communities. Three relevant points:
- Corporate Activism is Growing. 85% of corporate communicators believe corporate activism is growing. They are doing it because it is the right thing to do because their company is committed to making positive social change. Companies are speaking up more now than ever before because it is the right thing to do, in line with their commitments to making positive social change and can improve the businesses’ bottom line.
- Focus Matters. Most companies focus on two to four issues, each of which is meaningful and has an impact on the long term. This includes speaking up on issues such as racial equity, education, climate change, and gender equality. When determining what to speak out on, companies can consider how the issue relates to its values and what the company’s legacy will be on this topic. They may want to consider employee interests and passion areas, since one of the biggest drivers of corporate activism is employee demand. And finally, what is the opinion of the public and the company’s consumers?
- Benefits of Speaking Out are Building. 73% of communicators predicted that this year, their company would speak publicly about issues more frequently than in the past. 47% say speaking out enhances brand reputation, 43% say it increases employee morale, 32% say it attracts new employees, and 31% say it attracted new customers.
Although there is inherent risk—and therefore reluctance—in speaking up about societal issues, corporate activism is here to stay.
Organizations committed to social activism and may see huge benefits to their brand and legacy. Those who are not ready should prepare to speak up on social issues by studying the issues, understanding their audiences, and monitoring what’s going on in the polarized environment around them.
Public relations has never been more demanding or more meaningful.