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Best Practices For Brands Taking Activist Positions

Ran Blayer is the founder and CEO of Percepto, strategic reputation management, and digital communications agency.

There has never been a neat, clean break between business and geopolitics. As far back as the eighteenth century, the American colonies boycotted British goods, culminating in the Boston Tea Party and paved the way for the establishment of the U.S. However, in recent years, corporations have seen their fates ever more tied to the surrounding political mood. Instead of simply reacting to events, they have increasingly taken proactive positions and strived to be on the right side of public debate.

The list of major brands taking bold positions over the past few years is lengthy. For example, Salesforce threatened to pull investment in U.S. states considering anti-LGBTQ legislation. Similarly, in Australia, Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, took a public stance in support of same-sex marriage. Some top brands also took swift action following then-President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees in 2017. Starbucks, for instance, pledged to hire 10,000 refugees, and Airbnb vowed to accommodate displaced people affected by the legislation for free.

This trend, whereby businesses take activist positions, could be considered something of a corporate moral awakening. I believe it is also savvy reputation management. More and more brands are attuned to politics and are eager to align themselves with the moral compass that lies at the heart of their customer base. As such, they are rightly guarding their priceless reputations.

What is clear is that all are acutely aware of the centrality of perception that strikes at the heart of reputation management. Many companies share an understanding that once the winds of public debate are blowing strongly, speed is of the essence. Once competitors have chosen the moral path, there is no time to lose. Delay and procrastination can be costly. Nobody can afford to be perceived as a “copycat.”

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Back in 2016, McKinsey conducted a survey and found that 84% of executives believed “geopolitical instability will have an important or very important impact on global business.” But, only 13% had taken any steps “to address the risks from either geopolitical or domestic political instability.” In the years since then, the landscape appears to have shifted significantly. I believe it is fair to assume that were the survey conducted today, the results would be very different. There has never been a greater awareness of the importance of global trends to corporate perception and the role they play in reputation management.

It is a shift that I think is here to stay. Once upon a time, moralizing and principled posturing were not seen as appropriate corporate endeavors. Today, position-taking is critical. Corporate leaders ignore such decisions at their peril. Any ambitious company must factor the wider geopolitical climate into its strategic planning.

However, safeguarding corporate reputation in this way is not straightforward. Aligning with each and every fashionable cause is likely to be perceived as vacuous virtue-signaling. Instead, business leaders must be selective and take principled positions on the issues that reflect their core values and interests.

I’ve seen that a carefully considered stance, if skillfully communicated, can strengthen engagement with key customers, audiences and stakeholders. It requires quick decision-making. Companies cannot afford to be behind the curve. However, timing is just one part of the puzzle. Statements must also be meaningful, rather than hyperbolic, and they must be communicated consistently through all available channels. In an unpredictable world, a model of speed and substance allows leaders to take positions that make both moral and business sense.

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