PR’s role in choosing issues to speak on in a time of controversy

This is a complex moment. PR must have a seat at the table to meet it.

Corporate activism is gaining momentum as brands are expected to have the right message, tone and delivery when communicating publicly about where they stand on sociopolitical issues. But they’re also facing increasing pushback from those who disagree with those stances — just look at Bud Light and Target.

Proper allyship happens when brands “authentically respond to critical social moments with a well-thought-out message that includes some commitment to effecting positive change,” according to Bentley University Marketing Professor Susan Dobscha said in a university post. The messaging should never be “shallow, vague or even tone deaf,” she added.

Morning Consult reported that consumers now have higher expectations for brands to take “proactive positions” on often controversial issues like LGBTQ+ rights, police brutality, social justice and beyond. According to Morning Consult, for U.S. adults it’s “very” or “somewhat” important for business leaders to talk about issues like climate change (66%), civil liberties (71%) and labor rights (75%).

But in today’s polarizing world, it’s challenging — if not impossible — to show support for any of these topics without alienating at least some portion of your customer base.

However, being in the room from the beginning when corporate activism plans are being devised is the first step, Nicole Bott, founder and CEO of Bott Communications Consulting, told PR Daily.

“The responsibility is on both sides. And that’s actually why someone who is a PR practitioner or communicator needs to be the one that sits at the center of figuring out what a company’s activism program should look like,” Bott said. “Because that person is responsible for controlling what gets out into the media into the into the world and what percolates among the employees.”

Bott added that authenticity is also a helpful element in determining what to say and when in terms of corporate activism and “not chasing every issue,” but only those that align with a company’s mission, vision and values.

“Companies really need to sit down and define what are those areas that they truly believe in,” she said. “Also, have the discipline to say, this isn’t something that I’m going to step into, or I’m going to step into it and I know that I’m going to get backlash for it and we’re going to ride it out.”

Uniformity of messaging is also key, both internally and externally.

Erin Gaddis, publicist and crisis communications consultant with Bridge Media, told PR Daily that having an isolated message can easily fall apart at the seams when nothing else backs it up.

“I think consistent messaging is the biggest key and ensuring that your internal and external messaging are working together to communicate whatever message it is that you’re trying to get out,” Gaddis said, adding that looking at the message before it goes public is crucial, too, for transparency and accountability. “Allow your organization’s key internal and external stakeholders a chance to weigh in on the messaging before it goes public. They may be able to help you identify some blind spots and potential risk.”

Bott said that companies and PR pros should always prepare for fallout.

“You’re gonna have customers that are going to walk away,” Bott said in reference to Target. “You can’t please everyone and some of your customers are not going to like it.”

But not every negative response is truly a crisis. Your crisis plan should include a ranking of the issues that it’s most important to respond to — and those that are the least critical.

“How important is this?” Bott said of weighing out how to respond in corporate activism scenarios. “And if (my response) were to become a negative issue for our business, how much of an impact could it have on our bottom line?”


Sherri Kolade is a writer at Ragan Communications. When she is not with her family, she enjoys watching Alfred Hitchcock-style films, reading and building an authentically curated life that includes more than occasionally finding something deliciously fried. Follow her on LinkedIn. Have a great PR story idea? Email her at 


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