5 things to consider when taking a brand position on hot-button issues

The risks of staying quiet are greater than they used to be.

When to take a stand

There was a time, not so long ago, when issues surrounding abortion, gun control, mass shootings and other hot button topics were considered no-go territory for brands. The thinking went: “It’s too rife with risk to comment on issues that have nothing to do with our business.” In today’s environment, that thinking is obsolete.

And you know what? That’s a good thing.

This shift in attitude for a range of stakeholders, including consumers, employees, investors and news media, has been gradually changing over the past decade. However, the pandemic and its magnifying effects on economic, racial and social inequality, along with how brands responded to such events as the murder of George Floyd, catapulted companies to the forefront of the national debate. The new expectation is that brands must act.

The Supreme Court’s likely decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is now the latest in a series of polarizing topics that are leaving brands in a difficult conundrum: Do the benefits of taking action outweigh the risks of sitting on the sidelines? Here are five things for companies on the fence to consider:

  1. Actions speak louder than words. Brand trust and credibility can only be achieved through actions and behaviors that reflect and reinforce brand purpose. If brands choose lip service over meaningful behaviors, stakeholders will react accordingly with employees leaving, investors allocating funds elsewhere and customers going to competitors.
  2. Brands can’t (and shouldn’t expect to) please everybody. If brands try to be everything to everybody they suffer the risk of alienating stakeholders by not appearing authentic. Brands serve different industries, customers, investors and communities. Naturally, the issues on which they choose to focus can’t be the same as every other business. Yet, if brands demonstrate intent, clarity and consistency on the issues that are a natural outgrowth of their missions and values, they will reap the benefits of brand loyalty and trust.
  3. Silence is deafening and implies apathy. The effect of staying silent can, rightly or wrongly, be perceived as indifference. And the last thing brands want to communicate to stakeholders is apathy, especially in an environment where companies are not only speaking out on issues, but demonstrating through ESG initiatives how they are tackling such areas as climate change and forced labor.
  4. Employees should help lead the way. Corporations are often spoken about as monolithic entities devoid of human beings. The last time I checked, employees are the lifeblood of any organization. They (we!) imbue organizations with empathy, humanity, compassion and humor. And as such, what is important to us, collectively, must be used a barometer for taking action, whether supporting equal rights for transgender people or doubling down on commitments to enforce gun control.
  5. If brands want to be an employer of choice, they must be bold and authentic. Finding and keeping top talent is tough these days. Brands with a desire to be an employer of choice must be steadfast in their convictions and not hesitate to communicate early and often on major issues affecting their stakeholders. Inaction will not endear a brand to high-performing employees — especially younger generations who expect their employer to be a voice of reason in chaotic and frightening times.

Brands are under an extraordinary amount of pressure from stakeholders to respond to a range of social, political and cultural issues. There is no panacea that will magically resolve these brand reputation issues. However, if brands operate within the framework of their values and broader brand purpose, the pros and cons of taking action versus staying silent will become more apparent.

Ted Birkhahn is the co-founder and president of Hot Paper Lantern, a strategic communications agency specializing in reputation management.



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