News and Insights

The Danger of Companies Remaining Silent and Their Risk in Sharing a Viewpoint

June 1, 2023

Doing Good Requires Analysis and Strategy – Social Impact is a Business Decision

As a movie publicist at New Line Cinema – home to countless blockbuster films – it was part of my job to understand what drives consumer sentiment and behavior and what would ultimately encourage audiences to see a film on its opening weekend. A great movie evokes emotion. It makes you laugh, cry, and feel connected to actors in their roles.

I reflected on that connection during my weekend volunteer work as a Family Readiness Group Leader for an Army Reserve Regional Command when the United States was engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I spent my weekends supporting families whose loved ones were deployed to combat zones and who were terrified that they might not return. These American heroes weren’t actors in a movie. They and their families taught me what real courage looks like.

As I grew more experienced and gained perspective, I realized I needed to channel my marketing and communications know-how toward a different end: to rally people and companies supporting issues and causes that make a difference. Our military family group could not have survived without business support. It mattered. And it still does.

Investing in social impact has staying power even in a time of increased scrutiny.

Corporate Social Responsibility is a business and societal imperative at a time when companies are under increasing pressure to address social and environmental issues while keeping a keen eye on the bottom line. Businesses play a significant role in supporting communities where they operate and have vested business interests. Time and time again, research analytics show that companies with favorable reputations built on a foundation of societal good reap the benefits of customer connection, increased sales, and the ability to attract and retain top talent.

Yet the hostile response to taking stands on seemingly common-sense societal priorities – environment, social impact, and governance – makes companies hesitant to communicate.

Polarized political views fuel a strong response on what social impact is and is not. Fundamentally, social impact is about people. It addresses the most urgent and pressing economic, environmental, and social issues of our time for the good of individuals, communities, and society. It should not be about politics.

Social impact is not a trendy campaign to capitalize on the issue of the day. Long-term, purpose-driven commitments by companies benefit both business and society. And businesses have a responsibility to employees, consumers, shareholders, and other stakeholders to align with issues linked to business goals and reinforce the values their customers expect.

Setting the Record Straight on Brands Taking Stands Versus Responsible Business

I recently sat down with CBS Mornings to discuss how brands must think through and embrace social change and address consumer expectations in ways that transcend politics. It was a wide-ranging 45-minute conversation, and I wanted to share the key points we covered:

1. Purposeful action can be aligned with business rigor.

Brands understand that addressing societal and environmental challenges requires data-driven analysis and a strategic business approach that centers around customers, culture, and commitment. A scattershot “see what sticks” strategy, latching onto the issue of the moment, and making grand proclamations are ways could put brands in the danger zone.

By aligning with core customer values, businesses can determine which social issues resonate with their target audience. Moreover, they should evaluate their internal culture and ensure that their commitment to social impact is genuine and trackable long-term. Employees’ concerns and cares – the company’s frontline face – must be a priority. Shareholder value must be taken into account. There should also be a careful assessment of investments brands have already made to the issues and the impact of these actions.

Finally, these efforts must have the endorsement and backing of the C-Suite team. Otherwise, these campaigns have no teeth and will collapse at the first sign of upsetting the applecart – real or perceived.

2. Be bold if business allows but watch out for the overstep.

A brand must consider where they fall on “the spectrum of boldness.” Not every company needs to take a stand on every issue. For some, it’s built into their culture. It is at the root of their enterprise. It is natural for those companies to take clear stands and adhere to their ethos, stating it proudly for the world to hear. Others are just now wading in, seeing where they might get involved and make an impact. But just because a brand doesn’t boldly communicate about an issue and its social impact doesn’t mean it is less committed.

A careful analysis of how, where, and when to communicate about social responsibility initiatives is essential. As communications advisors, we help assess the potential risks and rewards associated with taking a stand on various social issues, ensuring that companies make informed decisions that best serve their goals and impact positively.

Where brands get into trouble too often is by overstepping customer expectations. Even if companies have a track record around an issue, being unexpectedly and excessively bold risks backlash and alienating customers.

3. When passions run high, consumers expect authentic, not performative, social responsibility.

Consumer expectations have undergone a significant transformation during the past several years. It used to be that people relied on governments to solve societal problems. But that’s now just one piece of the puzzle. The simple truth is that consumers now anticipate that companies will be part of the social solution to pressing issues.

The stakes are high for companies to deliver, even on global issues. Our data shows that almost half of Americans hold corporations and governments equally responsible for supporting Ukraine. Moreover, with the rise of social media, consumers now have a powerful platform to voice their opinions and hold businesses’ feet to the public spotlight fire.  The pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and the ongoing alienation of many segments of American society have further intensified this shift and associated expectations.

Companies recognize that customers care deeply about societal issues and whether brands are authentically aligned with issues that matter to them.

Now is not the time for total silence. There are many ways for brands to express their commitments.

It is too easy in today’s fractured political environment to kowtow to the people who shout the loudest or threaten violence, and there must be an understanding that there are universal truths and moral absolutes worth championing: The preservation of human rights; An end to the gun violence epidemic; Rallying to our planet’s health; And an almost never-ending list of issues that don’t make the front-page news and are equally important, across a broad spectrum from disability rights, to hunger and children’s health. Our world has no shortage of challenges that need champions.

Brands and the public need to set aside differences in political ideology to find common ground in solving the most pressing problems we face – the sustainability of people and the planet.  Like the frontline heroes I worked to support – the soldiers who from afar guided my career journey – companies must reflect on when they ought to speak boldly about social impact efforts and when it’s best to find alternative ways to express their commitment. Goodwill for a brand is good news for society.

TAGS: Purpose & Social Impact

POSTED BY: Amy Terpeluk

Amy Terpeluk