Today on The Content Mix, we have an editorial post from our own Melissa Haun. For the past several weeks she’s been editing blog posts for our podcast, and has noticed certain themes emerging again and again. In this article she’ll address a question that seems to be on all our guests’ minds—should brands weigh in on social issues?

To put it lightly, 2020 has been a controversial year. While the world has battled a pandemic, social justice movements have emerged and intensified. Every day brings a new deluge of information on the latest dramatic development, from protestors who refuse to wear masks to those who stand up for basic human rights.

Amid all this chaos, brands are facing unprecedented challenges. First they were forced to address the crisis of the new coronavirus, which has affected every region and industry.

Then social media was inundated by black squares, as both individuals and companies showed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in a simple—yet possibly misguided—gesture.

Why your brand shouldn’t stay silent on social issues
Celebrities show their support of the #blackouttuesday movement on Instagram. Source: The New York Times

Although much of the conversation around both of these issues is currently centered on the United States, there’s no question that they’re relevant for brands across the globe. 

At The Content Mix, we’ve spent the past few months interviewing content and marketing professionals across Europe—and many of them have had a lot to say on these topics.

Albeit for very different reasons, both the pandemic and the BLM movement have challenged content marketers and corporate communications teams around the world to adapt, react and respond to events that are likely beyond the scope of what their company usually does.

No one is immune to the moral imperatives of the modern world—especially not marketers.

So how do you know when your brand should weigh in on current events and controversies? This question is on the mind of pretty much every content and marketing professional in the world right now, regardless of their industry.

And it brings up all kinds of related considerations. Can your brand afford not to weigh in on social issues? Where’s the line between vague virtue signaling and genuine support? How can you make your message stand out, and if not bolster then at least not damage your brand?

The case against objectivity

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that this article reflects my personal beliefs. In other words, it’s far from objective—and that’s precisely the point.

There’s a time and a place for the kind of objective writing that avoids alienating anyone who might read it. That time is not now.

Why your brand shouldn’t stay silent on social issues
Demonstrators clash with police officers on Whitehall during a Black Lives Matter protest near Downing street in London. Source: VOA News

The social movements of today involve abstract ideals, of course, but we’re no longer discussing purely hypothetical situations. We’re talking about life and death.

As hospital beds are filled with critically ill patients and police forces fire tear gas at protestors, it becomes less and less important to avoid offending people.

Saving lives is more important than sparing feelings.

I think—and hope—most people can agree with the above statement. But it begs the question: can a post on Instagram or a well-intentioned tweet actually make a meaningful difference?

Before we dive into that, let’s consider the alternative: saying nothing. When it comes to issues of morality and human rights, silence is complicity. The refusal to speak out and take action against a flawed system is what keeps that system in place.

In addition, research shows that today’s audiences clearly want companies to speak out. According to a 2019 report by Sprout Social, 70% of American consumers say it’s important for brands to take a public stand on social and political issues.

On a global level, social activism is an important part of how people determine which brands are meaningful, and people expect those brands to play a central role in improving society. 

What’s more, Edelman recently reported that 64% of consumers around the world will base their buying decisions on companies’ social and political positions.

Brands that stay silent are at risk of losing customers, investors and revenue; just look at the Facebook boycott. Hundreds of companies are pulling their ads from the platform in protest of its refusal to take action against hateful content, as part of the #StopHateforProfit campaign.

Why your brand shouldn’t stay silent on social issues
The #StopHateforProfit campaign shows what can happen when big brands decide not to take action. Source: RTE

It might seem risky to take a public stand, but it’s clear that saying nothing can be just as dangerous for brands—if not more so.

Inspiring ideological change through words

Once you accept that keeping quiet isn’t an option, you have to decide what you’re going to say. Which brings us back to the question of how something as simple as words can change the way societies operate.

To demonstrate this, let’s take the example of the recent movement against police brutality. After news broke of George Floyd’s murder, both companies and individuals flooded social media with statements of solidarity against systemic racism.

This kind of complex issue operates on many levels, ranging from the most deeply ingrained beliefs and values to their visible manifestations. In order for an online statement to have a meaningful impact, it needs to address both ends of this spectrum. 

The first step toward changing the ideology that supports systemic racism is speaking out against it. Simply recognizing that it’s real and it’s not okay is vital.

You can’t solve a problem if you aren’t aware that it exists.

It’s a widely accepted truth that our collective culture both reflects and influences individual thoughts and actions. And now more than ever, brands are part of that culture on a fundamental level, giving them immense power to shape people’s lives.

Put all this together, and it’s easy to see that companies—especially global ones with massive audiences—have both the ability and the responsibility to use their voices for good.

As content and marketing professionals, we can help normalize the concept of speaking out. We should lead by example and stand up for what’s right, no matter what.

When you look at it this way, any post is better than no post at all.

But what if you say the wrong thing?

We’ve all cringed at companies who put out tone-deaf statements and were quickly accused of virtue signaling or outright hypocrisy. Perhaps it’s not always easy to find the right words when there are so many conflicting opinions coming at you from all angles.

That said, if you work in the content and marketing field, finding the right words is literally your job. As long as you do your research, ask for input from others who may know more than you, and base your message on a genuine desire to do the right thing, it’s not that difficult to avoid empty words.

And please, be specific. There’s nothing worse than a few fluffy phrases that seem to be copied and pasted from a generic diversity and inclusion statement.

Why your brand shouldn’t stay silent on social issues
Sound familiar? Source: Chris Franklin

A lack of specificity simply shows that you’re trying to maintain a safe distance from the issue itself.

Say what you mean. If you’re talking about racism, say that Black lives matter. If you’re talking about the coronavirus, promote safe behavior. If speaking out doesn’t make you feel at least slightly vulnerable, you’re probably not saying enough.

You might make a mistake. If you do, admit it and apologize. Learn from it and let it inform your future actions.

If you’re going to highlight the humanity of your brand, it has to be held accountable in the same way that individuals are.

Glossier recently addressed the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram with a specific statement and pledge of support:

Why your brand shouldn’t stay silent on social issues
Source: Glossier

Here’s an uplifting message from Guinness about staying safe on St. Patrick’s Day amid the pandemic:

Is it really your place to say something?

Certain social issues are more relevant for some brands than others. A health insurance company may face a greater expectation to directly address a pandemic than an online retailer. Likewise, a company that’s built largely on the success of Black athletes—like Nike, for example—may feel more pressure to take a stand against racism.

Relevance matters. In fact, researchers examining this issue in 2018 told Forbes that “When it comes to settling on which issues to address, the most important consideration is relevance… [it is] the key factor in establishing brand credibility on a social or political issue.”

In other words, you have to consider why a certain issue matters to your company’s audience.

But here’s the thing:

Some issues are universally relevant—like a pandemic or the widespread abuse of human rights.

As marketing manager Tina Morwani eloquently put it in our recent podcast interview, everyone has the responsibility to speak out against discrimination and bias—not only those who are being subjected to it.

If you don’t feel like your customers or employees are directly impacted by systemic racism, ask yourself if they (and you) might instead be part of the problem.

The international angle

Why your brand shouldn’t stay silent on social issues
BLM protests in Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Alex Paganelli

Some might argue that brands operating outside the country where an issue emerges are not responsible for weighing in on it. The Black Lives Matter movement is based in the United States—but does that mean that racism is a uniquely American problem? Of course not.

Luc Berlin, another marketing professional who we recently interviewed, pointed out that all companies operate within communities of people, and it’s important for them to respond to issues that impact their employees.

Clearly, the Black Lives Matter movement is affecting employees all over the world. As an American based in Europe, I can attest to the fact that individuals, brands and governments are being incredibly vocal here—even the European Parliament has weighed in on social media.

Why your brand shouldn’t stay silent on social issues
The European Parliament announces that they will address the BLM movement. Source: European Parliament on Instagram

In other words, don’t assume that geographic distance exempts you from addressing a problem.

When words aren’t enough

So you’ve decided to weigh in on a social issue and published a statement to that effect. Now what?

You have to back up your words with action. It’s important to show your audience that you care, and to do your part in influencing our collective ideology. But it’s equally important to start turning the tide by doing something more tangible.

When it comes to racial justice, don’t fall into the trap of “Black Power-washing.”

The Atlantic describes this as a practice “wherein companies issue essentially meaningless statements about their commitment to Black folks but do little to change their policies, hiring practices, or ultimately their business models, no matter how harmful to Black people these may be.”

Donating to a worthy organization is also a great way to put your money where your mouth is, but it’s not a substitute for direct action. Don’t think you can simply transfer the responsibility for solving the problem to someone else. You have to look inward as well.

Implementing change within your brand will be difficult, but not as difficult as overcoming centuries of systemic oppression.

It might seem daunting to take an honest look at the way your company operates within the context of race—but it’s worth it. Sprout Social affirms that “businesses can use their platforms and resources to do what individuals cannot: inspire change at scale.”

This might mean creating open conversations with your employees. It could consist of taking a long, hard look at your workforce and leadership structure, launching diversity and inclusion initiatives, and working to build the next generation of diverse leadership.

Need some outside help? Consider getting in touch with a workplace D&I expert like Kay Fabella, and check out our recent feature interview.

You should of course announce these actions to the public. After all, people are demanding to know how brands are addressing these issues. But the impetus to take action should be more than just public approval; fostering change is a long-term commitment.

Don’t exaggerate or brag about what you’re going to accomplish before you’ve done it. No one is going to be fooled by empty promises.

And if you need a role model, look no further than my favorite ice cream brand: Ben & Jerry’s. Their social media accounts are a masterclass in taking an actionable stand online.

The action itself will vary. What matters is that you take it. 

Whatever is holding you back—whether it’s fear of saying something wrong, hesitance to address an unfamiliar concept, or confusion about how to do better—remember that these kinds of issues are much bigger than your company (and that silence presents its own risks).

We can’t be afraid to speak up because of personal repercussions. Any negative effect that this may or may not have on your business is far less important than the effect that these issues are already having on other people.

Sometimes it simply comes down to prioritizing other people’s health, safety and fundamental rights over your own comfort.

Does speaking up mean taking a political stance?

These days it feels like everything is politicized. It seems nearly impossible to take on a social issue without positioning yourself on one side of the aisle.

Who knew that wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (or, in some places, not wearing one) would become a political statement? Even the undebatable statement that “Black lives matter” has somehow turned into a point of contention.

Why your brand shouldn’t stay silent on social issues
People gather in London to protest wearing masks. Source: CNN

Public health should transcend politics. Human rights should transcend politics. 

We should all be able to agree on the fact that everyone deserves to live.

While some people are worrying about what their friends will think if they put on a mask or post a black square, other people are fighting for their lives at the hands of an unforgiving virus and a fundamentally flawed police system.

Don’t be the kind of brand (or person, for that matter) that’s so afraid of politics that they avoid any issue that could be considered remotely political.

If someone interprets a message about public safety or equality as an unfavorable political opinion, that’s their problem. What matters more: losing the revenue that person brings you, or compromising your core values?

So… should you speak up?

The short answer is yes.

Of course, you may not be the one who’s able to make that decision at your company. 

But as a marketing professional, what you can do is speak with your leadership team and bring up the points raised in this article, as well as the answers to the questions posed earlier:

  • Can your brand afford not to weigh in on social issues? 
    • No. Consumers are demanding to know where companies stand, and staying silent will only foster distrust—saying anything is better than saying nothing. 
  • Where’s the line between vague virtue signaling and genuine support?
    • Genuine support means taking the time to consider your own role in the issues at hand, and then committing to making positive changes. Specificity is key.
  • How can you make your message stand out, and if not bolster then at least not damage your brand?
    • Honesty and transparency will set your brand apart. Consider other people’s perspectives and identify the actions you’re taking. If you make a mistake, admit it—people will forgive you as long as they trust that you’re being authentic. And remember: speaking out for what you believe in will often benefit your brand in the long term, even if it means short-term losses.

A few final takeaways

All brands have a responsibility to weigh in on social issues that affect their customers, their employees and the societies in which they work. In the case of both the coronavirus pandemic and systemic racism, that applies to pretty much everyone.

Don’t speak out just because you feel like you have to. Do it because you actually want to improve the world we live in—not just the bit around you, but all of it, for everyone.

The language you use matters. Avoid catchy buzzwords, vague virtues and empty promises. 

Don’t underestimate the power of words—but don’t overestimate it either.

Take the opportunity to think about the resources you have to address the issue at hand, and use them. Every statement of solidarity must be backed up by tangible actions and genuine commitment to positive change. This is what will make your messaging stand out from the crowd, ultimately benefiting both your brand and the greater good.

And finally, don’t think of social issues as temporary trends to be addressed and then forgotten. Activism isn’t a passing fad; it’s something that will be increasingly important for companies in the future.

If anything, take the coronavirus crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement as opportunities to educate yourself on why, when and how you should speak up. There’s never been a better time to learn.

We’re living in an age when current events and social justice movements are documented like never before. We’re watching future history books play out in real time. One day, when you look back on these events, you’ll want to know that you didn’t just sit on the sidelines. 

So stand up. Say something. Do something. And put your brand on the right side of history.