Face it. Your company taking a stance on a social issue won’t yield a perfect outcome. Committing to a social cause means being in league with others who are imperfect and, in some way, for reasons fair or unfair, offends someone else. No person or organization is perfect.
If your organization doesn’t take a stance on a just cause, is it condoning the ills in this world? Isn’t it wrong for your company to be interested only in profit? Don’t younger consumers want to know where a company stands on every issue?
These difficult questions have become common. Atop an organization filled with employees who care about lots of things, you’ve got to decide: How vocal should we be about making the world a better place, and is that better than keeping our heads down and doing the work we exist to do?
For CEOs in this position, there’s a two-word rule to use here. It takes a little unpacking, but can be invaluable in guiding your decisions: Be authentic.
Be true to your organization’s place in this world, its history, its culture, and its people. By virtue of its core business your organization already is making a positive social change—and you can pin your social cause decision-making on that. Your organization, indeed, has a moral compass, and in its makeup exists the instructions on how to properly position it.
For years, Brawny Paper Towels supported the Wounded Warriors Project, an organization that gives psychological and physical support to U.S. war veterans. The company in 2013 asked its customers to define “tough,” and made a donation for every submission of text, photos or videos answering the question.
TOMS shoes donated a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair sold. It donated 95 million pairs through 2019. Although TOMS adjusted its donation practices amid revenue struggles, the company still donates a third of its profits to underprivileged children, and still is speaking directly to consumers who care more about buying from socially responsible companies.
More examples abound.
Outdoor sports outfitter REI has a public charity to promote justice, equity and belonging specifically in the outdoors.
Whole Foods has long been known for charitable foundations to improve child nutrition and alleviate poverty often connected to hunger.
Cisco Systems focuses its giving on education through its Cisco Networking Academy, helping high school graduates find attractive job opportunities, simultaneously strengthening the universe of young computer network administrators.
These brands and their causes “fit,” and appear authentic. There’s no reason your own company can’t have just as perfect a fit. To make it happen, consider three things.
Step 1: Recognize the good you’re already doing
It’s been a half-century since economist Milton Friedman struck at the heart of the corporate social responsibility question, arguing that the true “social responsibility” of any corporation is strictly to “maximize the profits of its shareholders.”
Friedman’s landmark essay in the Sept. 13, 1970 edition of the New York Times magazine sets a familiar scene, even as he excoriates business leaders for believing “that business has a ‘social conscience’ and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers.”
We don’t have to fight over whether seeking a profit inclines mankind toward greed to hone in on this less-disputable nugget: What you’re doing in your profit-focused business is essentially good. It’s providing a service or product that fills a need. It’s improving lives by improving or preserving someone else’s business or personal life. It’s creating jobs and enabling employees to take on their own activism.
The clothes you’re wearing, the screen you’re looking at, and the prescription medicines you took this morning all came to be because some entrepreneur made an attempt at profit. You, like your peers in any business, already are an indispensable variable in the giant equation that makes society better.
So, specifically how does your company solve a problem? And for whom?
The answer to these questions marks your starting point for discerning whether a social cause—you might call it another social cause—is right to pursue.
Step 2: Take a measured view of the landscape
Today, borders are broken down. People know what their biggest brands support. You know what your friends care about through social media. There are fewer and fewer secrets about who cares about and backs what. Post-Covid, increased time in the home has driven many to strive for more connections and reach out with more opinions. And companies are in a new type of competition over who can care the most.
Social pressure is amplified. Depending on your natural level of resolve, it could take quite a gut check to refrain from reacting to a powerful Internet video, a handful of spirited tweets, employee comments, a nudge from a trusted fellow executive, or a suggestion from a client.
It’s difficult to right-size a decision about a charged and nuanced social situation, especially when we’re not immune from feeling strongly about it personally.
Stakes are high, as both underreaction and overreaction could hurt business. You don’t have to be strongly for or against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Law to know that Disney paid on both ends of that spectrum early this year, first for what many deemed a non-response, then for what many others deemed an overreaction. It’s also entirely possible that the most reasonable, gracefully communicated response from Disney wouldn’t have saved them from losing some level of support.
In such situations, it’s perfectly OK for a company to look before leaping.
Your organization is not responsible for solving what a portion of the population deems a social ill, an oppressive piece of legislation, or even a hate-driven human tragedy. No matter how strongly some people—or even you—feel about a situation, it’s simply not fair for your company to be judged if it doesn’t come up with an impossibility: a response that everyone will agree with.
If you’re being criticized, ask: Is this criticism fair and reasonable? Don’t react, unless your reaction is to let your audience know that the situation is on your mind. You are moved by it. You care about it. You will respond in a way that’s consistent with the values of your company, and you are taking great care to have internal discussions to determine the best way to do that.
Words like these won’t mollify everyone. But they will speak to your reasonable stakeholders—and that’s the right audience for you right now.
Step 3: Let your genuine corporate identity chart your course of action
So what’s your own organization’s best-fit course of action? Remember, all the answers already are in your corporate identity. Yes—you actually benefit from “inside the box” thinking, just this once.
First, determine how the decision will be made. Who sets the tone? Based on what? Does your company start big ventures with a brainstorming session? With a C-suite discussion? Is it a more democratic process? Is there a natural forum in which a discussion can take place? If talking about social issues is unfamiliar in your corporate setting, don’t add awkwardness by introducing a new process for addressing it.
Second, frame your internal discussions. These discussions are energetic and sensitive and can easily get off-track. As a leader, be ready to stem tangents and keep the conversation focused on 1.) your corporate identity, and 2.) whether and how it should address a given cause. That’s it. The closer you can get to marrying your business function to a social solution, the better.
And if you don’t see a marriage, maybe the cause you’re discussing isn’t the right cause. That’s OK, too. Not every organization will have something constructive to add to every civic conversation. This could be true even if an employee or stakeholder has a strong personal allegiance to a specific cause. Sometimes, being authentic means recognizing your organization would be out of its depth taking a stance on a social issue.
Lastly, consider who leads. It can be an individual, but most often it will be a team. Unless your company has an executive dedicated to social causes, keeping your company’s chosen course of action in front of you will require the same types of goal-setting, structure, and results analysis that makes you successful in your core business.
Most importantly, throughout the process, focus on the right actions. The right words will follow.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Words may show a man’s wit, but actions his meaning.”
Make no mistake, your company’s engagement in a social cause isn’t about what you say—or even about what any of your chosen charitable works enable you to say. While it may entail marketing, this exercise is far beyond marketing. It’s about meaning, goodness and authenticity. Remember that at all times.
Written by Jordan Buning, President, ddm marketing + communications.
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