How COVID-19 and recent events have energized online advocacy

Here’s how PR pros should take advantage of this moment and use digital tools to tap into a powerful zeitgeist around social responsibility and collective action.

Speaking up amid COVID-19

In life and in work, we often seek out catalysts for change. Something or someone to help us think differently, access our creative side and rediscover our passion for what we do.

In work, we often look at new team members as catalysts for change, who bring fresh thinking and different perspectives. In life, it can be a little bit more difficult to find that arbiter of transformation.

But this year, we haven’t had to go looking for change. Life has brought us significant, paradigm shift-inducing, irrevocable catalysts for change, as millions across the globe continue to wrestle with COVID-19 and Americans try to find our place in the fight for social justice and racial equality.

It can be difficult to find silver linings in the pandemic and in the tragic events that led to the renewed fight for social justice—although the latter, while long overdue, is a step in the right direction. But perhaps one silver lining is the unified collectives emerging online in response to these catalysts for change.

The restrictions on social gatherings that are necessary to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases have put digital communication at the heart of everything we do. Social media—once supplemental to our daily lives—is now central.

Look no further than the grassroots advocacy boom for proof of this sea change in the way we communicate and mobilize. For example, during just one week in late March, nearly one million people used Phone 2 Action to send 2.36 million messages to Congress. Those are numbers you can’t ignore. Those messages are catalysts for change.

But the unified collectives go beyond advocacy. Social media platforms are going above and beyond to create unprecedented repositories of information which are expressly designed to accelerate knowledge sharing and improve public health outcomes. But it’s not just for the people—it’s by the people. Depending on where you live, some platforms are including sections for “People Requesting Help” and “People Offering Help,” where communities convene to seek, offer and show each other support. Strangers are reaching out with advice for those struggling with the pandemic as if they were friendly neighbors.

As communicators and counselors, we have a unmatched opportunity to tap into these unified collectives, identify the common threads that bind them, and be the architects of meaningful changes in public opinion and policy. That’s in no small part because of a revived social consciousness. People really care about the issues, but they don’t want to just hear the right words from individuals and organizations. They want to see substantive action being taken to effect change.

Recent data from APCO Worldwide’s Insight team tells the story. Ninety percent of respondents believe companies should be very or somewhat involved in addressing social issues. Eighty-eight percent agree companies should sacrifice short-term financial gains if they are incompatible with the company’s values. And 93% agree that the best companies do good for their shareholders while also doing good for society.

This data reinforces the need for consultants and clients to collaborate on solutions which go beyond their scope of work. Corporate social responsibility can’t just be a lofty goal anymore—it should reflect a consistent commitment imbued in every aspect of a company’s operations.

Companies don’t even have to venture outside of their swim lanes to effect change. Organizations that focus on sustainable operations can advocate for environmental justice. Companies that emphasize maintaining a diverse workforce can push for racial equality. As their consultants, we have a responsibility to help them find their way and work together to turn goals and commitments into meaningful action.

The data is persuasive. The opportunity is significant. The rest is up to us.

Dan Smith is an associate director at APCO Worldwide.

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