How Companies Should React to Social Issues
23rd November 2021
64% of consumers will purchase from or boycott a brand solely based on its stance on a social or political issue. It’s no longer enough for brands to just focus on making profits. It’s now vital that they satisfy shareholders whilst making a positive impact on the world. This can be through corporate social responsibility, simply speaking up, or providing a platform for others to do so on issues that are important to their employees and wider society.
However, companies must get the execution right. Having a positive, active, consistent stance on certain social issues can help companies to build their brand to attract and retain consumers with high LTV and high-performing employees. With the internet being what it is, there is nowhere for employers to hide — fence sitting is no longer adequate. Whatever a company does or believes in can be made very public, very quickly.
In this article, we’ll give you tips on how best to approach responding externally and internally to what can be a complex, nuanced topic.
The Importance of Social Issues
Money is vital, no matter which way you look at it. We all need to make a certain amount of money to survive, let alone thrive. However, for the majority of people, money isn’t everything. There are issues in our society today that have nothing to do with capitalism but are deeply important to some people, including:
- Racial issues
- Gender-based issues
- Class issues
- Ability/disability issues
These issues can have a major effect on the quality of people’s lives and/or the lives of those they care about, both in and outside of work. Employers need to recognise the importance of these social issues and react accordingly.
As we’ll see later on in this article, being seen to put profits before people can have devastating consequences on a holistic level for even the biggest, most successful businesses.
People being able to empathise with others from a different socio-economic background, gender or race is equally as important as business. Fiscal growth is pointless if people can’t get along and respect each other. As we’ve seen time and time again with businesses from study after study, diversity is a strength for many businesses, not just on a financial level but also on a cultural level.
The Importance of a Clear Stance on Social Issues
Sitting on the fence or staying quiet is often worse than having a clear stance, as social media can make it very easy for other people to hijack a narrative. Sometimes people can quickly jump to conclusions if a company doesn’t respond to social issues quickly, either externally or internally.
It’s therefore important that employers take a clear position on all of the key social issues that are relevant to them. This doesn’t mean having pre-written social posts for all platforms but rather a clear understanding that ‘if X happens, this is what we think of that type of situation, in general’.
There should be, at least in theory, a section in a company’s brand guidelines for external communications in response to different social issues. Using this guide (which is constantly refined with employee input) will help employers to make it clear to everyone necessary what they believe in and where they stand.
The Expectations of Businesses
As we mentioned in the beginning, consumers and employees alike have different expectations of businesses now, compared to ten years ago. It’s not just about how successful a business is from the more standard business metrics such as:
- Market share
- Share price
- Market capitalisation
These are, of course, important, as if these metrics aren’t healthy, then the business isn’t viable. However, there are now other, sometimes less tangible metrics, which are becoming increasingly important to consumers, and if they aren’t up to scratch, it can have a significant effect on the financial metrics.
These metrics can be split into two main groups:
- CO2 emissions
- Energy efficiency
- Climate risk
- Water consumption
- Diversity and inclusion
- Maternity and paternity policies
- Mental health policies
However, there are often many points of overlap between these two groups. In other words, environmental issues are often closely linked to social issues and vice versa. For example, ‘food deserts’ often appear in some low-income neighbourhoods, which affect the nutrition of the local people. Poor nutrition can also have a negative impact on the educational and economic attainment levels of those people. It can also lead to an increased risk of some diseases that are linked to obesity. This is because the options available aren’t healthy.
Another example of these two elements colliding is the location of some housing. There is an unfortunate case in London where a girl passed away in 2013, partly due to living near a busy road which caused her respiratory system to be damaged by exhaust fumes from the vehicles.
Examples of Bad External Responses to Social Issues
During the earlier days of the coronavirus pandemic, McDonald’s temporarily separated their arches in some of its advertising visuals in an attempt to signal the importance of social distancing. A large number of people on social media began to call out McDonald’s for what they saw as a tone-deaf response to something serious.
Keeping with the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a backlash on social media for a number of brands, including Nissan, Verizon, AT&T, American Express and many more. The main point of contention was that all of their ads were simply copying each other, as this video shows, and not being authentic as a result. It was a case of simply jumping on the bandwagon.
At a time when people needed compassion and trust from others as well as companies, this was a lazy, inadequate attempt to react to a massive social issue that has affected virtually everyone.
The Value of Employee Insights
What employers need to be mindful of is assuming that they automatically know the right thing to do when a social issue appears. Often, and it’s not always their fault, they are distanced from the subject and don’t know enough about the history, complexity and/or pain points of it.
A way to solve this problem is by letting employees educate you on social issues that are important to them. Using a platform like Trickle can play a huge part in that. We’ve also written an article about how employee insights can be greatly beneficial to both companies and employees.
Trickle enables employers to get real-time feedback on what their employees are thinking, involving them in wider business decisions, such as what action to take in response to a social issue.
Examples of Good External Responses to Social Issues
There are a number of brands that have done well when responding to social issues. We’ve put a few examples below.
Patagonia – Patagonia has used its platform to fight against what it sees as unethical practices by other companies and individuals. An example of this is their decision to pull all of their advertising budget from Facebook. They have accused Facebook of being a platform that supports hate speech, partially due to not removing the former US president from the platform after many of his comments regarding people of colour.
Nike – After the unfortunate events surrounding George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Nike, in partnership with Wieden & Kennedy Portland, created the campaign, which was a spin on its famous slogan Just Do It. The Just Don’t Do It campaign was designed to signal both companies and consumers not to ignore the racial discrimination that happens all over the United States. This wasn’t the first time Nike reacted publicly to a social issue. In 2018, they used former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in their ‘Dream Crazy’ advert.
The key line was linked to Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice before an NFL game in 2016 — ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’ After the advert aired, Nike’s sales surged 31% in the days after, despite pushback from some sections of society.
Airbnb — In 2018, the property rental platform created an ad for the Super Bowl titled ‘We Accept’. This was largely in response to former President Donald Trump signing an order to close America’s borders to refugees.
This also sparked a national conversation about race, diversity and acceptance. The advert made Airbnb’s stance clear on the matter in front of almost 100 million people.
How to Respond to Social Issues Internally
Of course, it’s one thing to respond to social issues externally, but it can be equally as tricky when the issue stems from what’s happening inside the organisation. Platforms like Trickle could help businesses see these problems coming and give them an opportunity to address them at an earlier stage before an environment becomes toxic.
There are countless examples of companies that haven’t taken advantage of employee insights and have let social issues fester and become public, damaging both their customer and employer brand in the process.
Each company is different, so their exact process will be unique, but we’ll give a general outline we believe most will find helpful.
Listen — It may sound simple, but it’s so effective and not done nearly enough. The road to any sort of effective employee engagement starts with listening to your employees. This should happen at each stage, whether you are trying to solve an issue or prevent one.
Action Plan — A concrete, realistic action plan is necessary once you’ve got all the input from your employees. It’s important here again to involve employees in this process. An action plan needs to be refined with a lot of back and forth between management and staff before it’s signed off.
Action — Once the plan has been signed off by everyone involved, it’s time to bring those words to life in the form that was promised. Sometimes, unfortunately, bad things happen that aren’t in our control that can prevent employers from keeping their promises. If that’s the case, then communication and realignment with staff is crucial. You may have to revert back to stage 2 to make sure everything can go ahead despite the unforeseen issues.
Review – Once the action has been taken, it’s important to go back to stage 1 and listen to what employees have to say about the process. No matter how much planning and good intentions are involved, things could always be better. Reviewing everything with staff again will ensure constant improvements.
Repeat – Rarely is anything in life or business static. Circumstances will change, and you’ll have to adapt. Repeating this entire process regularly can help organisations to be more proactive than reactive when it comes to internal social issues.
How to Respond to Social Issues Externally
Responding to something happening such as the death of a particular person or another unfortunate event is difficult, even more so when you have the eyes of the world on you as well as your employees. Of course, each company will have their own specific way of doing things, but we’ve set out some guidelines that we believe can help every company in some way.
Relevancy — It sometimes doesn’t matter if the issue is one of the world’s biggest problems. It needs to be relevant in some way to the company. There is an argument that everything is relevant in some way, but it can be difficult — especially for businesses with smaller marketing teams — to keep track of everything that’s going on and respond to it. There will always be something that is missed, something that someone thinks you should respond to. It’s important that you focus on the issues most relevant to your employees, customers and brand. Not focusing means that you can end up becoming a news feed!
Internal Conversations — Before launching any sort of campaign or communication, it’s vital that internal conversations are had with employees beforehand to get a more rounded perspective of the situation. For example, let’s say there is a specific issue about transgender women that is in the news at the moment.
Using a platform like Trickle, which enables anonymous feedback, could help someone who is trans but hasn’t publicly declared it to voice their opinion in a more comfortable setting. Assuming that there are no trans employees at a company could lead to the alienation of an employee who wasn’t ready to be public. A key part of employee retention is making sure that employees know that they’re valued.
Build and Refine — Once the conversations have been had, it’s time to craft the message/messages. During this process, conversations still need to be had around what the messaging should be and how it might be received externally by different people. The main difference between this stage and the previous one is that this is more geared towards getting input on a tangible message rather than an idea.
Publish and Promote — Once it’s been agreed, the message needs to be published on all social platforms and promoted, hard. Employers can ask employees to join in on the promotion if they feel comfortable doing so. Posts from people tend to have more engagement than those from companies so this could be a great tactic to amplify a stance.
Review and Repeat — Once the message has been published and promoted, it’s time to review how successful the overall process was. It’s important to look at the process as a whole and not just the success of the message that was put out. One important thing that can come from this stage is deciding if the issue is something that you want to shine more light on, without an external event triggering a set of actions.
Sometimes the push to respond to a social issue doesn’t come from management but directly from the employees themselves. Employee activism can sometimes be seen as a bad thing, as it can be a sign that it was a last resort by the employees to get their point across. However, it can also be seen as a good thing if it is supported by a company.
As much as it’s important for a company to be heavily involved with social issue responses, sometimes the right response is to support their employees in their activism.
There may be a situation where, for whatever reason, there is a lack of knowledge about an external issue from management, and employees would do a far better job of responding on the company’s behalf than the company would itself.
The Benefits of Responding Correctly to Social Issues
As we’ve seen with Nike’s sales spiking after one of their external responses, there are tangible business benefits to responding to social issues both externally or internally in an effective way.
Responding well to social issues has a huge positive impact on a company’s employer and customer brand.
As we mentioned at the beginning, there are a large number of people that won’t engage with a brand if it isn’t being socially responsible. This might sound a little odd, but in a way, a company’s response to social issues as well as their internal culture should be a part of their marketing strategy. We must stress, this doesn’t mean that they should be inauthentic. A stance should be considered, put into action and proudly promoted unless new information comes up that means that stance has to be changed.
One thing that companies should note is that not everyone will agree with the action they take all the time, no matter how well researched or well-intentioned it is.
What’s important is that the action is backed by data, both from relevant external sources and employee feedback. Ideally, the response should be in line with existing company values, but a social issue becoming public can be an opportunity for a company to improve an aspect of its operations.
React to Social Issues More Effectively with Trickle
As we’ve seen, getting the response right for a social issue, internally or externally, is a tricky but rewarding process. Trickle makes this process much easier. It gives employers invaluable insights into what their employees are thinking and feeling in real-time.
It also provides a platform for employees to empower themselves to take the action they see fit in response to a social issue.
Whichever way you choose to address social issues, you’ll probably need to use Trickle to do it.
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