Should brands engage in social activism? - The Social Element
Social activism

Should brands engage in social activism?

2020 has been a year of intense social activism as people demand long-overdue social changes.

The last thing brands want is to be accused of exploiting important issues for material gain or kudos.

But that doesn’t mean brands should ignore what’s going on around them. 

Brands don’t exist outside of society. They are affected by social change as much as any other institution. Most of their customers – and employees – feel the effects of major social movements. 

So how can brands show that they are aware of, and care about, activism that takes place on social media, without exploiting the situation? How can they engage with their communities?

  • Listen to what people are saying and try to understand their point of view. Your brand may be pulled into a debate that’s raging across social media. Ask yourself why people are angry. Is it possible that the brand is saying the right things, but failing to act? Or failing to show its community the good it’s doing for the cause they’re fighting for? How can you show people that you’re making a difference?
  • Be authentic. Don’t just do or say something because it’s good PR. People appreciate brands that communicate openly and honestly. It helps strengthen the brand-consumer relationship because people realise that the brand shares their morals and values; and that they are willing to back up their words with action. 

Brands can only create thriving, long-lasting relationships with individuals if they show that they are listening to people’s concerns, that they’re willing to admit when they’re wrong and quick to start making changes.

  • Remember that we’re all unique. Rather than approaching people as consumer groups, see them as the individuals they are. Not all members of Gen Z will prioritise the same issues. Not everyone will respond positively to brands getting involved in a social cause they’re passionate about. Use data to discover what your audience is talking about on social media and emotional analytics to discover the general mood, but remember that individual responses need the personal touch.

Should brands ‘go dark’ on certain issues?

It doesn’t look great when a brand seemingly ignores the chaos going on around it, continuing to proceed as business as usual while everyone around it is struggling to get the society that we all deserve.

But the engagement must 

  1. Start with action. Communicate what you’re doing, not just what you think will make you look good. 
  2. Reflect the brand’s values, history and customer base.
  3. Be on an issue relevant to the brand (otherwise engagement runs the risk of looking like bandwagon jumping).
  4. Be started with the brand knowing how far it is prepared to go to support the cause. Is it willing to lose custom to stand up for what’s right?

Before jumping into the conversation, the brand should ask itself:

  • Does it want to make a public statement about the issue? If yes, then it should publish a statement within a day or so. It should also be prepared for questions and comments from consumers, journalists, politicians, activists and trolls. Brands must be prepared to tackle some extreme comments from people that don’t share its values.
  • Is it prepared to answer questions from the press and public? If a brand is silent on an issue, campaigners may be more likely to ask why that’s the case. For example, brands should be ready to discuss what the business is doing to improve issues like lack of diversity in their workforces and leadership teams.
  • Is it ready for the consequences of action or inaction? Silence can be read as complicity when dealing with major social issues. Brands don’t have to delve into politics or get into debates on social media to engage in important issues. A short post about the brand’s perspective and what action it is taking is usually enough to demonstrate that those working for the brand are listening, that they care and are acting to bring about change.

Whatever your team decides to do, they must reevaluate the content calendar as the social situation unfolds. You don’t want to be accused of being flippant or be seen to post content that could be misconstrued – no matter how innocent it is.

There’s reputational risk no matter what course of action the brand takes. As long as the brand speaks in accordance with its values – and is prepared to back up its words with action – there should be no problem with making the brand’s voice heard.

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