5 Insights On Corporate Activism From Top PR Experts

Last week, seven of the public relations industry’s top PR professionals offered unusually candid insights into one of the hottest issues of the day – corporate activism.

Values-Based Decision Making in a Provocative Environment was produced by the Museum of Public Relations, which has grown into an impressive thought leadership organization since its founding by Shelley Spector.

The panelists agreed that most corporations need to build trust by conducting themselves with transparency, honesty, and finesse. What’s more, today’s public increasingly expects corporate leaders to take a stand on social issues. That’s great news for the PR teams who support such organizations, but it does warrant a careful approach. When embarking on an issues campaign, public relations pros should make it relevant to stakeholders, engage their employees, consider their customers’ values, and be prepared for blowback.

Here are highlights from the corporate activism panel discussion, which included executives from Weber Shandwick, Johnson & Johnson, and General Electric.

PR’s Deep Impact: The CCO

Event panelists worked through some of the most well-known episodes in PR history, including the 1982 Tylenol poisoning crisis (Johnson & Johnson). Some had come of age in the days before digital and social media, then lived through the extraordinary communications revolution that transformed the nature of information. They bring a valuable perspective to the state of today’s communications.

museum of public relations social activism
(L to R) Roger Fine, Craig Rothenberg, Roger Bolton, Joyce Hergenhan, Shelley Spector, Jack Leslie, Bill Nielsen, Erica Taylor Sutherland, Michael Sneed

Not so long ago, public communication was a one-way process; organizations sent press releases and news statements to media for public consumption. Today, PR is a two-way conversation, and the sheer volume of news has exploded. The role of the Chief Communications Officer has therefore grown in importance. The CCOs working today have the opportunity to make a great impact on society. But it’s easier said than done.

PR’s currency has never been greater

As pointed out by several panelists, emerging generations place a particular premium on truth. Bill Nielsen, retired Chief Public Relations & Communications Officer for Johnson & Johnson, believes that the PR and journalism industries share a common currency: dedication to facts. A healthy journalism sector and corporate communications driven by honesty and authenticity will elevate the public dialogue and strengthen our institutions. As we have seen, flawed journalism and phony corporate speech will only weaken public confidence and degrade the national conversation. It’s a downward spiral.

As Johnson & Johnson CCO Michael Sneed pointed out, in today’s communications arena, companies have a social contract with society and must earn the license to do business. But, some corporations fall victim to short-term thinking, or they don’t know how to engage in a more challenging social environment. Several panelists offered observations and advice to communicators who want to gain (or regain) public trust, particularly among rising generations.

Doing the right thing is hard

Your company just needs to do good things and get on the right side of whatever issue arises. Simple, right?

No. And it’s important to recognize that fact. “People mistake ethical decision-making for deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. Most ethical crises are (difficult) moral dilemmas,” said Roger

Fine, the retired J&J General Counsel. Before you broadcast your position to the world, you must consider how various stakeholders will react. Expect pushback, because it will probably come.
Today’s PR teams are working in uncertain, acrimonious times, but that can’t be an excuse to hold back. In fact, it’s a reason to engage. As Dr. Erica Taylor Southerland of Howard University points out, “There’s an entire generation of workers who don’t recognize this atmosphere as provocative. To them, it is the normal everyday.” This is a crucial factor for many communicators who came of age before the digital age. Today’s consumers have different experiences and expectations.

If your company speaks out, will most be pleased and embrace your message? Will new customers be attracted to the brand? Will you alienate certain customers, influencers, or investors? When J&J joined other companies in pulling advertising from Laura Ingraham’s show to protest her criticism of Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg, there was pushback. Many Fox viewers responded, launching counter-boycotts using the hashtags #boycottJ&J and #boycottjohnson&Johnson.

Walk the PR talk

Were J&J’s actions worth the blowback? It’s arguable, but as a global health organization with a stellar brand reputation, it’s reasonable to weigh in on a public health matter. That’s not always the case. When Dodge aired a Super Bowl ad using a Martin Luther King Jr. voice-over to sell its Ram trucks, it faced a storm of criticism. If a company has no substantial or authentic connection to a cause or issue, it can descend into a quagmire of public skepticism.

As explained by Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick, “It’s not just about doing good things. It’s about identifying a social need. And what skill sets do we have that can help that? And still make money.” A company must be able to explain and support an advocacy position. The position should be expressed in an authentic way. Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard is known to be utterly frank in his messaging, including his recent offensive against the Trump administration. It makes sense that an outdoor apparel retailer like Patagonia would take a public stand against the opening of national park lands for commercial use.

But when companies trumpet sustainability programs but don’t back them up with behavior, it’s likely to be seen as greenwashing. When they do back it up with behavior, it’s called stewardship.

Speed kills, but so does hesitation

Companies must weigh many factors when jumping into a divisive social dialogue – and they must do it fast. They want to drive the conversation, yet in today’s fragmented and fast-moving mediascape, controlling the narrative is impossible. “It’s almost lethal to try and be first (in speaking out),” said Johnson & Johnson CCO Michael Sneed. PR teams must take time to evaluate the implications and consequences of corporate speech.

For example, Sneed sees his own company’s decision on the Ingraham show as too hasty, driven by the relentless news cycle. “We call it trigger process: something (an action) that could affect the whole organization… We took it from all sides,” was his observation. It seems that the best way to proceed is for corporate communicators to have a firm grasp of their organization’s values and those of its customers, so it can swiftly map public responses to the corporation’s value system.

People have good reasons not to trust corporations, but “communications is the currency of change,” observes Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick. With the veracity of journalists being questioned, the public relations industry may be in a unique position to step forward and be a force for truth. PR pros can help counsel corporations to speak out against wrongs, do good works, be authentic in words and actions, and do it all fast. This kind of strategic corporate activism can help to earn back the good faith of the American public.

The Evolution Of Social Marketing In PR: A Snapshot

history of PR

Nearly a decade after winning the vote, American women took to the streets in 1929 to march against the patriarchy in a brilliant New York PR stunt focused around … smoking? That’s right, in the innocent days before the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, public relations industry godfather Edward Bernays hatched an ingenious plan. His goal was to build competitive advantage for the American Tobacco Company’s Lucky Strike brand. Bernays and his client saw an untapped market. In the 20s, smoking cigarettes was a man’s pastime. (And sadly, the health risks wouldn’t be widely known for another 30 years.)

In the Broadway theaters of New York City, people would smoke during intermissions in special rooms under the orchestra. That is, men would smoke, since the League of Theaters prohibited women from lighting up.

Bernays sought advice from influential psychoanalyst Dr. Abraham Brill, a buddy of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. (Yes, even back then; it was all about who you know.) For the low fee of $125, Brill offered expert  counsel: “They (cigarettes) titillate the erogenous zone of the lips.” Brill suggested that females might want to light up to reject the taboo against the fair sex smoking. He called cigarettes “torches of freedom” for women.

A torch is passed

Bernays knew a good line when he heard it. He enlisted New York debutantes and their boyfriends to march in the Easter parade down Fifth Avenue while smoking. In one of the first ever media stunts, Bernays alerted the press that the protests would be happening and instructed the women to tell their stories to the major outlets of the time: newsreels, newspapers, and the three press associations.

Not only did the demonstration garner a front page story in the New York Times, but a mere three days later, American newspapers were reporting that women were smoking in the public squares in several major cities, including Boston and San Francisco. Weeks later, the ban of women smoking in Broadway theaters was lifted.

Female empowerment or exploitation by men?

Bernays “invented” modern PR by using psychology and media savvy to influence public opinion. He had started his career doing propaganda work for the U.S. government during World War I. Later, he would coin the term “public relations.”

The “torches of freedom” episode is an early example of the co-opting of a social movement for commercial purposes. But was it ethical? Clearly, Bernays used the growing women’s equality movement to sell cigarettes. But if the initiative did in fact promote women’s rights (even the dubious privilege of smoking) by fighting a double standard of behavior, then does it matter if a company profited? If the demonstration had been a true grassroots protest instead of a staged event for cameras, the American Tobacco Company would also have profited. But Bernays’ intent was expressly commercial, and he was a man attempting to dictate the path of women’s issues. The ethics are muddy.

Social marketing in 2018

Today’s PR professionals are a little embarrassed by Edward Bernays and his propaganda stunts, but – aside from the toxic image the cigarette industry later took on – are modern campaigns really that different? For International Women’s Day, it’s instructive to look at the famous Dove-sponsored Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004. In some ways it is a similar co-opting of a cultural moment. Unilever’s Dove aims to sell beauty products, and it uses a powerful social issue to position its brand. Its PR agency studied women’s self-image and attitudes toward their own bodies to identify a legitimate concern. Perhaps one reason for the campaign’s success and its longevity is the need to broaden our definition of female beauty – a need that persists today.

Today, a company can be acting out of authentic social concern while simultaneously profiting from those concerns. Fast Company’s sixth-ranked World’s Most Innovative Company for 2017,  Patagonia, does exactly that by folding its social responsibility into its mission.

What makes the difference between true social commitment and exploitation? A company’s authentic intentions. An insincere or shallow corporate social responsibility program is usually easy to spot, and the public will call BS. When Pepsi produced an ad that was seemingly about the black lives matter movement it was roundly criticized. The ad, which depicted Kendall Jenner offering a Pepsi to a central-casting police officer, reeked of inauthenticity, and the brand promptly did the right thing in pulling it.

If Edward Bernays were working today, he’d need to grapple with our digital news cycle, consumer skepticism, and our collective craving for true engagement. Today’s corporate communications campaigns are more likely to tilt toward transparency, responsible stewardship, and authenticity. Those have to be counted as steps in the right direction.

Five Ways To Create The Right CSR PR Plan

Corporate or brand reputation is often at the heart of a sound public relations strategy. And the companies who enjoy the best corporate reputations are typically those who make a commitment to social responsibility. The reasons are many: a strong reputation can help an organization differentiate its products and services, attract talent, and even mitigate risk.

A study by Reputation Institute found that 40% of our willingness to buy, recommend, or work for a given company is based on our perception of its products, while 60% is influenced by perception of the company itself. RI ranked major organizations by their reputations for behaving as responsible corporate citizens in 2013, and four companies  – Microsoft, The Walt Disney Company, Google and BMW– tied for the top spot.

Great CSR can work for smaller companies, too

But what about a more typical organization? How do corporations who aren’t necessarily globally recognized brands with deep pockets adopt CSR principles and make them work on a smaller scale? Here are some guidelines to developing the right CSR strategy for an enterprise that’s not on the Fortune 100 list.

Look for the right strategic fit. Sometimes a company chief executive has a pet project or charity and it morphs into the corporate philanthropic or community service campaign. But this isn’t always the most strategic way to approach CSR. The best social responsibility campaigns are intuitive to the companies or groups who undertake them. It’s best to start with a review of corporate values and focus in on what meshes. Stonyfield Yogurt promoting organic farming through its “Have A Cow” makes intuitive sense. KFC supporting the Komen Foundation? Maybe not.

Make it ownable.  You can grow into the ownership, but the ideal CSR program isn’t a cookie-cutter commitment that just about any other company could embrace. That’s why relationships of large multifaceted not-for-profits like United Way or American Red Cross usually need to carve out a specific component, like disaster assistance for homeless families, or support for budget-strapped public schools.

Get horizontal buy-in. A CSR program will be more enduring and more potent if it resides throughout the organization, not just in the corporate communications division. Beyond PR and marketing, Human Resources should own a piece of the action. Microsoft describes its social responsibility commitment as a “horizontal” one instead of a series of siloed activities. In fact, Microsoft’s Dan Bross explains that it has the added benefits of helping to break down walls inside the company.

Start small. A CSR campaign can die from ambition. It’s often a good idea to pilot a program in a local market or to negotiate a smaller sponsorship with a not-for-profit partner that can grow over time before rolling out a fully national campaign.

Focus on the long term. It typically takes years for a social or community commitment to fully penetrate key constituencies and become linked with the corporation in the customer or stakeholder’s mind, so a flavor-of-the-week strategy is usually not very successful. The strongest campaigns unfold naturally and organically, but with some help from good PR practices.

Secrets of a Successful CSR Campaign

It’s no surprise that public trust in corporations, along with government and faith institutions, seems to be at an all-time low. According to the Reputation Institute’s 2012 Corporate Social Responsibility RepTrak 100 Study, only 17% of respondents trust what companies promise in their marketing. What’s more, a mere 6% perceive the top 100 companies as good corporate citizens. That’s one reason why so many major companies make reputation management and Corporate Social Responsibility a priority.

Microsoft has the best reputation for CSR in the world, according to the study, followed by Google, The Walt Disney Co., BMW, Apple, Daimler, VW, SONY, LEGO and Colgate-Palmolive. But what about a more typical company? How do corporations who do not happen to be globally recognized brands make CSR work for them?

Look for a strategic fit. The best CSR campaigns are intuitive to the companies or groups who underwrite them. Often a corporate CEO or other executive has a personal or pet project and somehow it snowballs into a CSR commitment. But it’s far better to analyze your corporate values and focus in on a strategic bullseye. Tide sending a mobile fleet of washers and dryers to disaster-hit areas makes perfect sense. KFC supporting the Komen Foundation? Maybe not.

Get buy-in at the top. A successful CSR program usually needs more strategic heft than an executive hobby or pet project, but it stands a far greater chance of surviving if the C-suite champions it. Buy-in should start there, and be vigorously reinforced. Look at Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, who personally gets behind its corporate social programs.

Make it horizontal. Any corporate social responsibility campaign will be longer lived and more powerful if it transcends corporate communications. Take a cue from Microsoft, which describes its CSR commitment as a horizontal function, not a series of vertical tasks. In fact, Microsoft’s Dan Bross explains that it has the added benefits of breaking down silos.

Start small. A new CSR campaign can die from ambition. It’s far better to start with a manageable program, say, in a local market, or even a pilot effort, before rolling out a larger campaign.

Take the long view. Many companies, by design or due to corporate executive changes, alter their programming in a CSR flavor-of-the-month strategy. That’s a mistake. It typically takes years for a social commitment to fully penetrate key constituencies and become linked with your brand. Let it happen naturally and organically, but with some help from good PR practices.