Having worked in public affairs and for elected officials in a variety of roles, I love to watch PR and Politics collide. It happens more and more these days and senior public relations professionals have to be prepared for when (not if) their company gets plunged into a political issue. Often unintended, the results can have employees, customers, and the general public up in arms on both sides of nearly any issue.

These topics are always difficult because inevitably, someone’s political views will be offended. I, of course, surround myself with awesome professionals, so regardless of our personal views and political opinions, we had a very productive chat around some hot button issues. For the chat, we took four recent situations and looked at what went well, what went wrong, and what every company can learn from these corporations’ tactics and responses.

Nike did well (again personal politics aside) with 3 quarters in a row of financial growth which is very important to public corporations. If we deconstruct Nike’s process, we can find some useful steps they took to make their social cause stand a success.

Takeaway: Plan & prepare, and as Scott Kaminski said: Ask the tough questions. To yourselves as a company and to your customers.

We see Gillette did very poorly (again personal politics aside) with their “good guy” approach, which may or may not have contributed to a reported $8B write-down. Yikes! Not what any corporation wants to see. If we could deconstruct Gillette’s process for their social cause stand it seems that companies should avoid jumping into topics that are not relevant to the established brand essence. In later interviews, Gillette was very open about their intentions and thoughts. Addition reading shows that the company was suffering from other issues that contributed to the stock drop, so the lasting results of the backlash are yet to be determined.  

Takeaway: Do not quickly jump into a political issue that you have not deeply researched and is not already part of your core messaging as a means to gain attention or to improve an aspect of your business.

Cloudflare jumped in with a rapid response to this past weekend’s gun violence. Again, personal politics aside, the CEO made a very visible move that encompasses several political hot topics (freedom of speech, hate groups, racism, guns – all the big ones!) They received both thumbs up and thumbs down for their response.

Takeaway: even when a political stand is firmly supported by your organization and is well within your ongoing messaging, be prepared for a backlash of sorts, either from those who think you should stay out of politics or those that oppose your stance.

Another organization, a PR agency to boot, upset its employees and changed course on doing business with a certain type of company (in this case if was detention centers.) While it is unlikely that the move will impact their bottom line or future business, the internal conflict may have more damaging lasting consequences.

Sean M. Dineen reminds us that, “…transparent onboarding of new clients [is essential to employee communications.]” He recommends having those family discussions upfront, conceding that it is often hard to do that within large organizations.

Takeaway: have a plan in process to keep employees engaged, informed, and able to communicate thoughts, ideas, and concerns.

According to Newsweek, research shows that “millennials want to work for companies that show corporate social responsibility. To accommodate employees seeking companies that take a stand on social issues, many large, publicly visible businesses seeking to clearly define their political stances by wading into controversial debates.”

As a PR agency or freelancer having conversations early and often is an important part of managing any risky political issue comes into play. Mary Beth West, APR, Fellow PRSA says, “[when taking on a client] I would ask for different and more in-depth questions on the front end before taking on the work. Example: If a company refuses to take operational advice critical to reputational outcomes, it’s a deal-breaker.

Takeaway: As a business owner, in-house senior practitioner, or freelancer it is your job to look around corners, understand the broader business environment, understand the operations of your company/client in order to give proactive, sound advice.

For many companies, the chaos of politics will provide an opportunity for brands to create stability and they expect them to take a stand to fill the “trust gap.”

A Brands in Motion global study shows that consumers believe brands are capable of providing this stability, which is an element of ‘motion’. They also expect them to take a stand and fill this trust gap and, to do this, executive behaviour matters.

“It’s no longer sufficient for brands and corporations to focus on maximising profit at the expense of social good,” says Gooding. “The public is increasingly looking to brands, companies, and organisations to respond to sociopolitical and environmental issues and essentially drive social change. Even in the face of turbulent and unstable times, brands need to continue to take a bold stance and consider their purpose a long-term strategy for success.” ~ Sarah Gooding Kobus, the deputy general manager of WE Communications.

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