Taking a Stand as PR

Dr. Kaye Sweetser, APR+M, Fellow PRSA

June 12, 2020

The conversation right now isn’t so much as which companies are taking a stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. They all are. And because of that, the PR world has a lot to say about corporate advocacy.

It isn’t just about finding the right words to say: it should be about finding the right ways to help.

What the science says

Nick Browning and colleagues looked at corporate advocacy in a two-part experiment published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. They asked what impact taking a stand has stakeholders.

They tested:

  • impact of making a statement verses silence
  • comparing corporations leading as the first to speak out to following after their peers
  • widely supported prosocial issues (where more than 1/2 Americans agree on stance) as opposed to controversial partisan issues (division on issue clearly following party lines)

Corporate political advocacy is altruistic, promoting ideas that match corporate values rather than push its economic self-interest. The Browning study expected publics to see corporate advocacy as a signal that the organization is committed to a relationship with stakeholders.

Findings for widely-supported sociopolitical issue:

  • advocacy inspired greater stakeholder relationship than silence (H1b)
  • organizations that lead (rather than follow competitors) on an issue inspire a slightly stronger relationship with publics (H2)
  • stakeholders who felt involved with the issue on their own strengthened their relationship with the corporation that took an advocacy stance (H4a)
  • stakeholders involved with the issue felt a reduced relationship when the corporation was silent on the issue (H5a)
  • organizations silent as their peers advocate for the issue damage relationship with publics whose beliefs drive buying decisions (H5b)

Findings for controversial partisan issue:

  • advocacy still inspired greater stakeholder relationship, compared to silence (H1b)
  • leadership on the issue damaged stakeholder relationship, compared to followership (H1a)
  • publics who felt involved with the issue returned a better relationship when the organization was a leader in making a statement (H4a)
  • relationship declined for involved stakeholders when an organization stood alone in silence (H5a)

The bottomline is that corporations benefit in making statements on widely supported issues. It doesn’t matter as much if they lead in advocacy or follow, as long as they say something. Corporations stand out, and damage their relationship with publics, when they are the only ones silent.

When it comes to more partisan issues, corporations don’t benefit from leading. Considering the risk of damaging relationships with publics on the opposite side of the issue, corporations might as well follow with their peers instead when they feel the need to advocate.

Is BLM prosocial or partisan?

In terms of the Black Lives Matter, public opinion reported in the New York Times this week positions the movement as a prosocial issue:

Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.

Statements that hit the mark

The Browning research (just released yesterday) has been playing out in real time over the past two weeks. It seems every corporation has posted a statement, many following the same visual format of a manifesto shrunk into an Instagram square of white text on a black background.

The masses embraced the statements. But Charles Chamberlayne says not so fast. In an op-ed to the San Diego Union Tribune last week, Chamberlayne criticized corporations for merely throwing words up on Instagram. It seems corporations are making statements without substantive action, and in many cases they fail in recalibrating their actions and hiring to reflect the stated values. A lack of Black representation in leadership and board positions from the organizations making statements make their words hollow.

We talked to a panel of Black public relations professionals to get their take the PR reactions to the Black Lives Matter, and asked them to share the best examples of corporate political advocacy they had seen.

Alan Bush is the vice president of strategy for Ignite Visibility.

Jade Thomas the marketing operations manager for Ordergroove.

Totyana Simien majors in public relations at San Diego State University.

A clear favorite was the Ben & Jerry’s response.

They were very clear about their intentions. Their verbiage is strong, clear and they outlined actions of what should be taken. They also have a history of corporate activism and speaking up (not because it’s the cool thing to do or for fear of backlash). They also supported BLM a few years ago. - Jade Thomas

That experience with the issue may have liberated them to do more in their response, since a simple message of support would have been a redux of a previous narrative.

They’re direct. The cover of their statement was “WE MUST DISMANTLE WHITE SUPREMACY” in large, white letters. There is no going around the subject. They made this their cover to draw attention and plainly state where they stand in this long fight of demanding racial equality. They know what they stand for and are showing that they are 100% on our side. - Totyana Simien

For Simien, what the Ben & Jerry’s statement didn’t include was almost as important as what it did say.

They created a four step plan that all includes action. There is no blackened screen, no #westandwithyou, no passive and ultimately empty message that just repeats what everyone else has been saying. They took the time to do their research and come up with ways in which their followers can actively participate in changing the culture of this country. - Totyana Simien

Pairing action with empathy made this brand more human.

Aritzia’s brand goes with direct honesty. During these times, it’s important to acknowledge that - direct language that is empathetic I appreciate this approach; it’s not just empty platitude but conveys an empathy that is often lost in brand positioning. - Alan Bush

In the case of WarnerMedia, Thomas appreciated their approach of talking internally about the actions they were taking. Harvard Business Review then highlighted their advocacy as a best practice.

Honesty stood out in signaling authenticity.

Uniqlo is brand that has a succinct message which I like because it does convey a lot in a simple message. Voices are being heard, they are taking action to do more. This post also encourages the reader to look at the brand post language that surrounds the image. - Alan Bush

Let your actions be your statement

While these statements stand out as having good elements, the point here is that a corporate response should not be a insincere message.

Dave Chappelle nailed it in his 8:46 special: no one cares what Ja Rule thinks.

Words will not reverse several hundred years of systemic racism. Words are meaningless when not matched with action.

Corporations should use their resources and political capital to lead the way to a better America before posting on social media about that world they desire.

Taking a Stand as PR
Taking a Stand as PR

The conversation right now isn’t so much as which companies are taking a stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. They all are. And because of that, the PR world has a lot to say about corporate advocacy.

It isn’t just about finding the right words to say: it should be about finding the right ways to help.

What the science says

Nick Browning and colleagues looked at corporate advocacy in a two-part experiment published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. They asked what impact taking a stand has stakeholders.

They tested:

  • impact of making a statement verses silence
  • comparing corporations leading as the first to speak out to following after their peers
  • widely supported prosocial issues (where more than 1/2 Americans agree on stance) as opposed to controversial partisan issues (division on issue clearly following party lines)

Corporate political advocacy is altruistic, promoting ideas that match corporate values rather than push its economic self-interest. The Browning study expected publics to see corporate advocacy as a signal that the organization is committed to a relationship with stakeholders.

Findings for widely-supported sociopolitical issue:

  • advocacy inspired greater stakeholder relationship than silence (H1b)
  • organizations that lead (rather than follow competitors) on an issue inspire a slightly stronger relationship with publics (H2)
  • stakeholders who felt involved with the issue on their own strengthened their relationship with the corporation that took an advocacy stance (H4a)
  • stakeholders involved with the issue felt a reduced relationship when the corporation was silent on the issue (H5a)
  • organizations silent as their peers advocate for the issue damage relationship with publics whose beliefs drive buying decisions (H5b)

Findings for controversial partisan issue:

  • advocacy still inspired greater stakeholder relationship, compared to silence (H1b)
  • leadership on the issue damaged stakeholder relationship, compared to followership (H1a)
  • publics who felt involved with the issue returned a better relationship when the organization was a leader in making a statement (H4a)
  • relationship declined for involved stakeholders when an organization stood alone in silence (H5a)

The bottomline is that corporations benefit in making statements on widely supported issues. It doesn’t matter as much if they lead in advocacy or follow, as long as they say something. Corporations stand out, and damage their relationship with publics, when they are the only ones silent.

When it comes to more partisan issues, corporations don’t benefit from leading. Considering the risk of damaging relationships with publics on the opposite side of the issue, corporations might as well follow with their peers instead when they feel the need to advocate.

Is BLM prosocial or partisan?

In terms of the Black Lives Matter, public opinion reported in the New York Times this week positions the movement as a prosocial issue:

Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.

Statements that hit the mark

The Browning research (just released yesterday) has been playing out in real time over the past two weeks. It seems every corporation has posted a statement, many following the same visual format of a manifesto shrunk into an Instagram square of white text on a black background.

The masses embraced the statements. But Charles Chamberlayne says not so fast. In an op-ed to the San Diego Union Tribune last week, Chamberlayne criticized corporations for merely throwing words up on Instagram. It seems corporations are making statements without substantive action, and in many cases they fail in recalibrating their actions and hiring to reflect the stated values. A lack of Black representation in leadership and board positions from the organizations making statements make their words hollow.

We talked to a panel of Black public relations professionals to get their take the PR reactions to the Black Lives Matter, and asked them to share the best examples of corporate political advocacy they had seen.

Alan Bush is the vice president of strategy for Ignite Visibility.

Jade Thomas the marketing operations manager for Ordergroove.

Totyana Simien majors in public relations at San Diego State University.

A clear favorite was the Ben & Jerry’s response.

They were very clear about their intentions. Their verbiage is strong, clear and they outlined actions of what should be taken. They also have a history of corporate activism and speaking up (not because it’s the cool thing to do or for fear of backlash). They also supported BLM a few years ago. - Jade Thomas

That experience with the issue may have liberated them to do more in their response, since a simple message of support would have been a redux of a previous narrative.

They’re direct. The cover of their statement was “WE MUST DISMANTLE WHITE SUPREMACY” in large, white letters. There is no going around the subject. They made this their cover to draw attention and plainly state where they stand in this long fight of demanding racial equality. They know what they stand for and are showing that they are 100% on our side. - Totyana Simien

For Simien, what the Ben & Jerry’s statement didn’t include was almost as important as what it did say.

They created a four step plan that all includes action. There is no blackened screen, no #westandwithyou, no passive and ultimately empty message that just repeats what everyone else has been saying. They took the time to do their research and come up with ways in which their followers can actively participate in changing the culture of this country. - Totyana Simien

Pairing action with empathy made this brand more human.

Aritzia’s brand goes with direct honesty. During these times, it’s important to acknowledge that - direct language that is empathetic I appreciate this approach; it’s not just empty platitude but conveys an empathy that is often lost in brand positioning. - Alan Bush

In the case of WarnerMedia, Thomas appreciated their approach of talking internally about the actions they were taking. Harvard Business Review then highlighted their advocacy as a best practice.

Honesty stood out in signaling authenticity.

Uniqlo is brand that has a succinct message which I like because it does convey a lot in a simple message. Voices are being heard, they are taking action to do more. This post also encourages the reader to look at the brand post language that surrounds the image. - Alan Bush

Let your actions be your statement

While these statements stand out as having good elements, the point here is that a corporate response should not be a insincere message.

Dave Chappelle nailed it in his 8:46 special: no one cares what Ja Rule thinks.

Words will not reverse several hundred years of systemic racism. Words are meaningless when not matched with action.

Corporations should use their resources and political capital to lead the way to a better America before posting on social media about that world they desire.