Americans expect business leaders to do more than just generate profit. In a recent poll, MorningConsult found that more than 2/3rds of Americans believe CEOs should be at least partially responsible for leading the country through challenges like coronavirus.
But the desire for corporate leadership isn’t limited to COVID-19. The same study found that 9 out of 10 Americans believe that companies should advocate for the safety and well-being of their employees, and that 8 out 10 Americans want companies to publicly contribute to the betterment of society.
Put simply, there is an appetite for corporate leadership on social issues.
At the same time, speaking up about social issues is a delicate process. Companies can seriously harm their brand if they publish a socially oriented message that seems inauthentic or out-of-touch with their own business practices.
For business leaders who want to communicate authentically on social issues, here are a few tips on crafting effective, authentic and socially responsible corporate messages.
Hypocrisy is the Death of Authenticity
Few things are as damaging to a brand as false advertising. If a company publicizes one set of values but acts by another, they can seriously degrade their reputation.
The best/most recent example of this might be Amazon. Amazon made several large gestures related to coronavirus responsibility that have been generally applauded by the public. However, they have come under immense public pressure after reports emerged that Amazon’s employees were being overworked. Worse still, Amazon has reportedly fired the whistleblowers who called out their poor working conditions.
As a result, now Amazon is facing considerable public backlash, including pressure from nine senators to release corporate information related to warehouse conditions.
Before you or your team speak publicly about a social issue, take a moment to evaluate your own behavior and see if there are steps you can take to self-improve. If you find something that could be problematic, that’s okay! Fix it, and make that change part of your narrative on social progress.
Symbolism Isn’t Enough
Hollow symbolism is not as bad as hypocrisy, but it can still cause problems.
For instance, the fight against breast cancer famously suffers from an obsession with symbolic activism.
During October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month), companies make millions of dollars selling pink-ribbon products, but these profits rarely translate into actual breast cancer research or medical support. As a result, consumers often feel like Breast Cancer Awareness Month exists to benefit businesses instead of benefiting people with breast cancer, and brands like Dick’s Sporting Goods and the NFL have dealt with serious scandals as a result.
To avoid the pitfalls of highly-symbolic communication, make sure that the social messages you put out are backed by real action. Most of the time, simply donating to relevant charities is enough to add credibility to your message. Additional steps can include corporate policy reform or the endorsement of candidates who advocate for a relevant cause.
Be Optimistic and Honest
The best messages on social issues are both optimistic and honest. A pessimistic message will only turn your audience away, and an overly optimistic message will come across as disingenuous.
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, gave an address to her country that exemplifies this balance. She acknowledged the severity of the pandemic, set clear expectations about the extent to which the government could curtail the spread of coronavirus, and left on a positive note about the collective power of New Zealand’s citizens.
Many businesses would do well to follow this example. The public will respect a candid message and a plan for the future more than they will respect exaggerated, “canned” social messages.
For those looking for more information about corporate social responsibility or strategic communications strategies, the Pivot team would love to help! Connect with us online and we’d be happy to help you navigate the complex landscape of social responsibility in 2020.