Relevant organizations are answering their clarion calls.
2020 was unprecedented in almost all ways. In the past year, we have seen stakeholders dramatically give voice to demands for companies and CEOs to take a stand on civic issues. Stakeholders have been clear that they are looking for companies to align with their own personal values and principles. They will reward companies for doing so (loyalty, consideration, intent). They say they’re willing to help. Stakeholders – customers, employees, shareholders – want to see organizations be a catalyst for real, sustainable change. They want more than words. They want to see organizations deliver on corporate purpose and values.
So far in 2021, we are seeing increased scrutiny on who and what companies support – with stakeholders asking the hard questions about whether companies are putting their money where their mouth is. In 2020, we employed our relevance framework and issued a series of reports on COVID-19, Social Injustice, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. After the disturbing insurrection in Washington, D.C., last week, we’ve done so again with an analysis of CEO and corporate responses to these events in our latest W2O Relevance Framework report.
The Intersection of Stakeholder Expectations and Company Expertise = Relevance
Relevance is the nexus of stakeholder expectations and company expertise, purpose, values, what companies say, and how they behave. Relevance attunes companies to a sense of cultural, societal, political currency and urgency. To be relevant is to be thought about, sought out, talked about, engaged with, believed in and advocated for on the topics that matter to an organization’s stakeholders. Our Relevance analysis approach allows us to measure the impact of that intersection and inform our strategies to increase and deepen connections with stakeholders.
Stakeholder Expectations are Shifting the Rules of Engagement
- Many organizations now believe there is a new expectation or foregone conclusion that brands must respond to any-and-all major issues. Organizations are wrestling with whether to issue statements (a cautionary “wait-and-see” approach that is increasingly noticed and called out when they don’t immediately respond). Organizations are challenged by balancing and not ignoring controversy, but not leaning in either.
- Organizations are experimenting with responding to social and civic issues (with mixed reactions).
- The insurrection is uncharted territory. Some well-intentioned statements of support were lauded in some cases but seen as non-committal “soft stances” and criticized by stakeholders for not being more explicit calls-for-action. Standard thoughts and prayers and calls for unity and support did not resonate as much as dedicated stances calling for the 25th amendment or impeachment or suspension of political funding, for example.
Responses Lauded by Stakeholders Focused on What Mattered
- Authenticity mattered: Companies with a long, proven history of social activism and weighing in on civic issues with a very clear perspective (e.g., Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia) were able to quickly respond to the events in D.C. and do so effectively. Their positions were met with positivity from their stakeholders, and they were cited in media coverage as having responded “as expected.”
- Timing mattered: Day three was too late. Companies that didn’t issue statements immediately were called out for their conspicuous absence.
- Agility mattered: Many companies started with a statement of support and then days later took more active steps, such as suspending campaign funding, with more explicit calls-for-action.
- Channels mattered: Effective responses employed multiple channels for a surround-sound effect.
- Language mattered: Strong, personal, emotional language directly citing those responsible and calling for action (e.g., article 25, impeachment, suspending political funding) resonated.
Applying the Learnings
Brands bracing for next week’s inauguration – or looking at best practices in engaging with stakeholders in this evolving landscape – should consider the following:
- Agility: Timing is everything. Move with speed and flexibility, whether pausing media spend or preparing statements based on the nuance and context of multiple scenarios.
- Alignment: Stay true to your organization’s purpose and values as your North Star. Resist the assumption / foregone conclusion that all organizations must issue a statement. Any statement or action should only be considered if it aligns with the organization’s purpose, values or history of social activism.
- Authenticity: If you do respond, make it authentic and plausible. Be empathetic and sensitive to the tone, nuance and context of the moment. Recognize that your organizational “truth” and language isn’t that of stakeholders.
- Action: Listen to and act on what stakeholders are telling you. Make it a dialogue not a monologue – engage your stakeholders. Your response needs to be more than a passive, non-comital “soft stance.” It needs to focus on explicit calls to action. In the healthcare industry, many companies took real, decisive action by suspending political funding and stakeholders lauded the move.
Our democracy faced an important test last week, and many companies responded in ways that showed them as human, authentic and credible. 2021 will be a year where we will continue to face new and unique challenges, giving us more opportunities as companies and brands to show up as the leaders we want our stakeholders to know us as.
With contributions from Alan Chumley, Chuck Hemann, Katy Hagert, Stephen Yoon, Marianne Gollub, Elisabeth Bromberg, Eileen O’Brien, and Jennifer Paganelli