Corporate activism insight and advice from noted PR pros

Taking a stand on sensitive social issues is now part of the job. See how experts suggest mitigating blowback and navigating potential publicity minefields.


Recently, seven of the public relations industry’s top professionals offered candid insights into one of the hottest, most controversial issues of the day—corporate activism.

Values-Based Decision Making in a Provocative Environment,” a panel produced by the Museum of Public Relations, shed light on issues and obstacles modern communicators face. The panelists agreed that organizations should build trust by conducting business with transparency, honesty and finesse, though that’s easier said than done in today’s fraught and fragmented cultural climate.

With the American public increasingly expecting corporate leaders to take a stand on social issues, PR pros have a huge role to play in mitigating blowback and navigating publicity minefields.

Here are highlights from the corporate activism panel discussion, which included executives from Weber Shandwick, Johnson & Johnson and General Electric:

Rebuilding trust through truth

Several panelists noted that emerging generations place a premium on truth and authenticity. Bill Nielsen, retired chief public relations and communications officer for Johnson & Johnson, believes that the PR and journalism industries share a common currency: dedication to facts. A healthy journalism sector and corporate communications driven by honesty and authenticity will elevate the public dialogue and strengthen our institutions. The onslaught of “fake news” and phony corporate speech will only weaken public confidence and degrade the national conversation. It’s a downward spiral that PR pros must actively combat.

As Johnson & Johnson chief communications officer Michael Sneed pointed out, organizations today have a social contract with society and must earn the license to do business. However, some organizations fall victim to short-term thinking, or leaders fail to recognize that remaining silent or neutral is no longer a safe option in our challenging social environment.

Several panelists offered observations and advice to communicators who want to gain (or regain) public trust, particularly among rising generations.

Taking a stand is hard, but necessary

Corporate activism is just a matter of doing good things and getting on the right side of hot issues, right? Not so fast.

“People mistake ethical decision making for deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. Most ethical crises are (difficult) moral dilemmas,” said Roger Fine, a retired Johnson & Johnson general counsel. “Before you broadcast your position to the world, you must consider how various stakeholders will react. Expect pushback, because it will probably come.”

Today’s PR teams are working in uncertain, acrimonious times, but that’s not an excuse for remaining silent. In fact, it’s a reason to engage. As Erica Taylor Southerland of Howard University points out: “There’s an entire generation of workers who don’t recognize this atmosphere as provocative. To them, it is the normal everyday.”

This is a crucial factor for many communicators who came of age before the digital revolution. Today’s consumers have different experiences, expectations and affinities.

If your organization speaks out, be prepared for fallout. J&J faced an online backlash after joining other organizations in pulling advertising from Laura Ingraham’s show to protest her criticism of Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg. Many Fox News viewers responded by launching counterboycotts using the hashtags #boycottJ&J and #boycottjohnson&Johnson.

Walk the PR talk—cautiously

Were J&J’s actions worth the blowback? The organization obviously alienated some customers, but the storm surrounding the controversy seems to have abated.

Other organizations are not so fortunate. When Dodge aired a Super Bowl ad using a Martin Luther King Jr. voiceover to sell Ram trucks, it faced a hail of sustained criticism. The Dodge example offers a reminder of the dangers of piggybacking off serious topics and ending up looking phony, insensitive, tone deaf or worse.

As explained by Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick: “It’s not just about doing good things. It’s about identifying a social need. And what skill sets do we have that can help that?”

An organization must be able to explain and support an advocacy position. Empty platitudes are not enough. The position should be expressed in an authentic, tangible way.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is known for taking strong political stands, including his recent offensive against the Trump administration. It makes sense that an outdoor apparel retailer like Patagonia would jump into the fray against the opening of national park lands for commercial use, and Patagonia certainly seems to walk the talk in terms of giving back toward environmental issues.

However, when organizations trumpet sustainability programs but don’t back them up with meaningful action, credibility evaporates.

Speed kills, but so does hesitation

Organizations must weigh many factors when jumping into potentially divisive social dialogue. One is response time. It’s important to be timely and respond swiftly if you want to be viewed as an authoritative, leading voice in your industry, but that’s a risky move.

“It’s almost lethal to try and be first (in speaking out),” said Johnson & Johnson’s Sneed. Ideally, PR teams should take time to evaluate the implications and consequences of corporate speech.

For example, Sneed viewed his own organization’s decision to pull advertising from the Ingraham show as too hasty and driven by the relentless news cycle. “We call it trigger process: something (an action) that could affect the whole organization … We took it from all sides,” he remarked.

People have good reasons not to trust corporations, but “communications is the currency of change,” observed Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick. With the veracity of journalists being questioned, the public relations industry may be in a unique position to step forward and be a force for truth. PR pros can help counsel organizations to speak out against wrongs, do good works and be authentic in words and action. This kind of strategic corporate activism can help to earn back the good faith of the American public.

A version of this post first appeared on the Crenshaw Communications PR Fish Bowl blog.

Topics: PR

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