Citizen participation in advocacy and communicating with government is a bedrock of American democracy. We’ve written consistently about the importance of engaging with elected officials by individuals, associations, interest groups, and corporations. Message authenticity is also a key ingredient to running a successful campaign in addition to establishing and cultivating a unique voice.
We’ve seen corporate activism following this playbook recently, whether it’s through direct employee grassroots, public affairs, or issue advocacy contributions by recognizable brands and companies.
As public affairs professionals, we’re acutely aware of intentions beyond the surface and the authenticity of communication. Motivations for participation vary from the genuine hope for political change to being “woke” and following the pack to donate a rounding error to bolster sales. Corporate activism is a fairly new phenomenon, rapidly evolving, and affords companies and leadership opportunities to affect their bottom line.
We’re not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with a company that donates to a movement or issues advocacy campaign based on improving their public perception or hoping to tap into a new consumer market. Rather, we’re saying that there’s a clear delineation between companies with a precedented approach to corporate activism and the new wave that may not share the same level of idealism.
As companies develop and leadership changes, there may be an ebb and flow between motivations for corporate civic/social participation. Transition messaging needs to be refined and transparency is a key element to successfully positioning a company as a bastion for corporate social good. Companies shouldn’t create a facade of altruism. Instead, they should embrace their organizational culture and allow the authentic voices of their employees, customers and brands to establish the level of participation and priorities.
Corporate leadership must be a gatekeeper that prevents major controversies and negative attention on the organization, but also recognizing that some degree of controversy will exist in the mere participation in activism.
Corporate leadership and influencers that engage in activism should strive to preserve their brands, but foster conditions of openness and free-thinking. Organizations shouldn’t force a stance on employees that’s not clearly established at the date of hire, or who aren’t afforded an opportunity to provide feedback and input on the activist stance.
Companies on both the liberal and conservative ideological spectrums exist and impact political outcomes, social norms, and cultural stances daily. This area of advocacy and engagement is growing and organizations will need to grapple with protocols on how to best address the balance of corporate activism with their company goals and employee sentiment.
Mike Fulton directs the Washington, D.C., office of Asher Agency and teaches public affairs in the West Virginia University Reed College of Media’s Integrated Marketing Communications program.
Joshua Habursky is the Head of Federal Affairs at the Premium Cigar Association and Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.