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Navigating Minefields: The Art & Science of Communicating Around Social & Political Controversies

One of the most popular instruments of digital procrastination back in the 1990s was a computer game called Minesweeper. You click a square to reveal a number indicating the amount of adjacent mines. Sometimes you'd need blind luck to proceed, but usually, you could use logic, critical thinking, and problem-solving to avoid danger and clear the board.


If Microsoft remade this classic for PR and communications professionals, rather than getting a helpful number, a click would reveal a shrug emoji. And that's assuming they didn't change the rules to have you hit a landmine on your first guess. In today's social media and political environment, potential landmines await everywhere, even in seemingly innocuous areas.


Political polarization is surging, online outrage is big business, and there are more partisan activist organizations than ever. Even internet trolls have grown their influence and had their voices amplified by a social media ecosystem that thrives on lightning-fast responses and consists of millions of accounts directly financially compensated for clicks and likes. Outrage, trolling, and "gotcha" social media have become profitable cottage industries. It often seems everything is political now, mainly because attention and "buzz" are prized political resources. And nothing draws attention like taking a controversial or outrageous position on an issue.


Method Communications found that 2/3 of Americans say their purchases are affected by a brand's stance on social issues, and over 40% of that study's respondents said they have stopped supporting a business because of its position. No organization, no matter how seemingly neutral or harmless their mission might seem, is immune from getting swept up – positively or negatively – in a cultural war or political/social touchpoint.


Communicators and leaders now find themselves in precarious situations when determining whether or how to weigh in on any social issue and what to do when they accidentally stumble into the crossfire. Executives at Disney, Target, Nike, and AB InBev – just to name a few recent high-profile examples – found themselves at the center of the whirlwind after responding to something they probably thought at the time was rather mundane.


Take DEI and ESG as examples. Just a few years ago, these concepts were mostly alphabet soup that few people outside the C-Suite or HR had even heard of but were widely regarded as pillars of smart business. There is significant data to support that organizations with substantial demographic and cognitive diversity enjoy better results. Data point after data point shows that younger workers expect their workplaces to promote DEI and be principled in standing up for popular social justice causes. According to recent research from ROKK Solutions, 63% of Americans expect companies to provide leadership on social issues, but only 37% of company leaders believe they are doing a good job responding to social issues.


ESG has generally led to investments in innovative and more eco-friendly entities while making responsible commitments that help attract and retain millennial and Gen Z workers. But ESG – and DEI – have become flashpoints in the present political and social environment. Despite the catchy "go woke, go broke" rhyme, ESG remains a smart business strategy. This puts investors and organizations in the awkward position of wanting to continue their ESG efforts but talking less about it or not calling it by its name. If all this seems confusing, then you're starting to get it.


So, as a communicator, how do you maneuver through all this? While there's no universal answer, you can take a few steps to ensure a more resilient, consistent system to decide if, when, and how to take a position.


Construct your framework: The first step is to build a decision tree/logic plan customized to give weight to your organization's values, mission, priorities, etc. We particularly like this one from Axios as a model to build upon. It's essential that once you have a framework in place, you share it internally so your people know how you arrive at your decisions and won't be disappointed or surprised when your organization remains silent or speaks up about a particular social issue. Likewise, we recommend sharing it with recruiters as many potential employees raise these questions in interviews.




Set your standards: With your framework shared around the organization, you'll want to codify the logic you used to build it so it becomes part of your core values and philosophies. This ensures consistency at all levels of your organization and provides a steady structure that isn't seen as bending during leadership changes.


Consistency, consistency, consistency: When it comes time to translate words into action, consistency is crucial. Resist the urge to waver for "special cases." Once you deviate from your decision tree, you've created erosion in your credibility that you may not be able to escape.


Your people are your best allies: Always communicate and align with your internal audience first. They're your first line of defense, and you need them to understand your decision – and how you got there – to defend you in public. Not only can your people be your best defense, they can be your best offense, too. When you lay out a thoughtful, coherent plan and empower your people, they can be your best ambassadors. If your decisions seem inconsistent, they either can't or won't have your back, and that will undermine your credibility. This is why it's so important everyone has access to and knows your decision tree before you ever have to use it.


In the case of Disney, their employees were upset that they had stayed mostly silent as Florida passed its so-called "Don't Say Gay'' bill into law. Facing internal pressure, Disney issued what amounted to fairly tepid criticism, but it was enough for Gov. Ron DeSantis to sharpen his culture warrior knives and seize upon a political opportunity to create buzz for himself and his campaign. Disney has lost many of its longstanding special privileges in the state and is caught up in time- and resource-consuming litigation to regain just part of the freedom to operate it previously enjoyed. Even if the company succeeds in recovering those privileges, it will have expended significant resources to do so.


Plan ahead, stay ahead: Time invested upfront using your framework will pay massive dividends as you ride out any potential storms. When you stake a position only to flip-flop, you'll end up with nothing but enemies. You'll likely get praise and criticism for any issue you take a stand on, so you need the fortitude to stick by your position. Following your framework will provide the structure to do so.


This is where things truly went sideways for the Bud Light brand. It can be debated whether a brand such as that should've risked courting an influencer like Dylan Mulvaney. After all, it was a relatively minor engagement that most people would've missed had Kid Rock not gone "bawitdaba da bang da bang" on some cases of the beer in a viral online video (though he was recently photographed drinking a Bud Light despite his calls for boycott, making the entire issue even more complicated.) But Bud Light really stepped in it once they tried to backtrack quickly. Not only did it cause the boycotters to dig in, but it also infuriated the LGBTQ community and allies. Compare that to Nike (who, it should be noted, also created a campaign with Mulvaney that essentially went unnoticed). When the sportswear juggernaut threw its support behind Colin Kaepernick in 2018 while kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, there were videos of angry consumers burning and destroying Swoosh merchandise everywhere. But Nike never wavered in its support of Kaepernick, and while sales briefly dipped, they eventually rose even higher, and a year later, their stock price was 60% higher.


Silence is an option, too: Lastly, don't be afraid to take a pass on weighing in on an issue that is truly irrelevant (or only mildly relevant) to your organization or your people. PR giant Weber Shandwick recently found that consumers and employees overwhelmingly expect companies to take public stances on crucial issues – 82% on human rights, 73% on climate change, 72% on racism, 70% on gun violence – but that doesn't mean you have to take a side every single time. That's what your framework is for. On top of everything, when you start weighing in all the time and creating expectations with various stakeholders, you can risk getting dinged for errors of omission when you don't publicly state a position on a given cause celebre.


Ultimately, there's no easy answer. Navigating these minefields will be part of our jobs as communicators for the foreseeable future. Companies risk fallout by weighing in on a subject with a stance that stakeholders may disagree with. Still, because so many people expect an organization to have a single, unified opinion, companies also risk reputational damage by not having a position on an issue that ends up at the forefront of social and political attention.


So create your framework, follow it consistently, mobilize your people, and show courage when you determine it's time to deploy it. You may not only clear the board without stepping on any unexpected landmines, but you might even be able to burnish your reputation.


People say that every crisis is an opportunity. Let the next crisis be an opportunity to demonstrate your company's values, credibility, and maybe even its restraint directly to your stakeholders.

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