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When Brands Get Political: Is It Good PR?

PR.TweetA couple of weeks ago, I was called by two journalists wanting public relations insights on companies hit with blowback for comments about our new president. Should brands get political, they wanted to know? I shared my perspective that brands shouldn’t always shy away from controversy, summarizing with, “You can’t put your head in a hole, shrink back, and avoid the entire dialogue.”

The quote seems almost quaint after this weekend’s events. Social and media channels were blazing following the president’s executive order restricting travel to the U.S. from seven primarily Muslim countries. Even for those favoring a tighter refugee policy, the execution of the ban, which stranded travelers and caused confusion at airports and among government agencies, left a lot to be desired. But for the public relations community, the instant reaction of many large companies also signaled a change in our little world. For major brands, it’s getting harder sit on the sidelines.

Pressure to speak out, but risk either way

On Saturday, Uber stepped over a picket line when it failed to honor a New York City taxi strike in solidarity with those affected by the travel ban. #DeleteUber began trending almost instantly. Rival Lyft was quick to ride into the breach by pledging a $1 million donation to the ACLU, which dispatched lawyers to assist those stranded in airports and elsewhere. Then, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky announced his company would offer lodging to refugees stranded by the ban.

As outrage grew, more tech companies spoke out against Trump’s action, and Google’s Sergey Brin even showed up at a protest at San Francisco airport. Brin, who emigrated from the Soviet Union at the age of six, emphasized that his motive was personal, but there wasn’t much doubt where Google stands on the order. CEO Sundar Pichai announced a $4 million “crisis fund” and criticized the ban in an internal email, calling it “painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues.”

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings capped the outcry by calling the ban “un-American” and Slack cofounder Stewart Butterfield tweeted that “every action seems gratuitously evil.” In one of the more dramatic commitments, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz — never one to shrink from a principled position — vowed to hire 10,000 refugees in 75 countries over the next five years. Schultz’s announcement, naturally, triggered a #boycottStarbucks hashtag that trended throughout the day Monday.

All this in the first 48 hours after the executive order. Certainly, large technology companies are invested in a progressive immigration policy and it’s in their interest to make those views known and to reassure their workforce. Studies show that CEO activism is safest – and probably most effective – when it involves issues with direct relevance to their business. But the new administration is setting up daily challenges for all kinds of companies and their leadership, as well as the communications teams who advise them. As the Trump administration moves forward, it will be critical for major brands to carve out their own positions on a range of hot-button topics.

A cost for remaining silent

There are risks in taking a stand on any controversial matter, particularly in our divisive political environment. You’ll never please everyone, and dealing with the inevitable customer response is a distraction from the day-to-day business at hand. An errant quote or hasty decision can precipitate a social boycott or worse. And as we’ve seen, a nasty tweet from Mr. Trump can cause a public company’s stock to drop.

But there’s also a cost in remaining silent. It’s more subtle, but it’s there, and it’s looming larger these days. Especially for our biggest and most socially visible corporations – from global technology companies to major consumer brands – the expectations are growing. Look at the pressure on Sheryl Sandberg, who until very recently had not spoken publicly about Trump’s policies or rhetoric. Expectations of business leaders, particularly those who’ve articulated social values, are very high. They’re driven even higher by those who set an example, like the CEOs who spoke out over the weekend on the immigration EO, or the many who publicly condemned North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” last year. Both situations evoked a response that merged business concerns and social values, and both grabbed public attention for the companies involved.

Millennials expect more

Another reason for the growing pressure on big brands to speak out is that most crave the approval of millennials, the customers of today and the future. This rising generation wants to know where the brands they support stand on key issues, and they’re quick to use the power of their pocketbook to support, or punish, where they see fit.

So, what’s a brand to do? The task for most organizations is to understand the attitudes and values of their own employees, customers, and other stakeholders on high-priority social and political matters. Their engagement with their best customers and advocates should transcend traditional marketing and PR research to work at a gut level. Then they must articulate their own corporate values relevant to burning issues and communicate them consistently and thoughtfully.

Above all, authenticity matters. For any brand that jumps on a breaking story for some quick publicity without a true commitment to the issue, or absent preparation for all types of customer reaction, there will be a steep downside.

It’s not easy. But something tells me the tough and divisive issues aren’t going away any time soon. As one protestor’s sign read, “We’ll be here tomorrow.”

Teams are choosing sides; companies and their brands should be ready.

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