David Vincent, Director of Public Relations, Rooster Strategic Solutions

Consider this scenario: One of the world’s largest farm equipment companies created a viral firestorm last week when its CEO took to Twitter to mobilize farmers against climate change. Using all-caps tweets including “MAKE THE TERRA COOL AGAIN,” farmers were urged to boycott agricultural companies that haven’t published plans to significantly reduce global temperatures.

Ok, this didn’t really happen. But it could. And it doesn’t have to be global warming; there are a number of agricultural/social issues on which a CEO or company might choose to take a stand: tariffs and trade, food labeling, glyphosate use, sustainability, the Farm Bill, subsidies – the list goes on and on.

To date, most agricultural companies have gravitated mostly toward reactionary use of social media ­– versus messaging that is proactive. On the other hand, many companies outside the agricultural arena are already embracing activist positions on social media that can take one of two forms. Corporate activism focuses on topics important to the company or management but unrelated to its products. For instance, several companies including GM, Starbucks, and WalMart banded together to complain about President Trump’s perceived lack of response to the nationalist rally in Charlottesville. A second, more common form is brand activism, where a company adopts themes that are related to its products and important to its audience. Well-documented examples of brand activism include Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land” campaign to protect U.S. national parks and Nike’s ad campaign starring Colin Kaepernick to highlight racial inequality.

Does social activism work? As is often the case when you’re talking about social media, it depends on your definition of success. Here are a few of the risks, rewards, and factors that should be considered before you carve out an activist niche.

Considering Social Activism

The economist Milton Friedman famously argued that “The business of business is business,” and until recently, most companies and their CEOs were comfortable operating under the assumption that their only social responsibility was to maximize profits. It was rare for a company leader to make public statements outside the corporate realm. Broaching incendiary social issues on gender, sexual orientation, free speech or gun control would have been unfathomable and possibly an act of career suicide. Today, many corporate leaders and their customers believe differently. “Our jobs as CEOs now include driving what we think is right,” Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan recently told The Wall Street Journal.

What’s more, the number of and easy access to social platforms available have made it easier than ever for individuals within a company to speak their minds – whatever that may be. And more of their customers, especially younger Millenials, expect to hear what they think beyond earnings forecasts. According to research from Weber Shandwick, nearly half of Millenials believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society, and more than half say they would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on issues that are important to them.

Does it pay? It can. According to an ABC report, Nike’s sales increased 31% shortly after the Kaepernick campaign was launched. But while there’s not a lot of scientific evidence available on the financial impact of social activism, the companies using it as a tactic might argue that it’s a “longer play” that differentiates their company from its competitors, particularly with like-minded customers who will show their loyalty with increased sales over time.

Social Activism Risks

Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz is no stranger to controversial topics, having  spoken out on LGBTQ rights and gun control, among others. But even he over-reached in March 2015 when he launched an ill-fated campaign called “Race Relations” that encouraged customers to have meaningful conversations on race with their baristas. After a week of outright ridicule, he pulled the plug on the effort.

Ridicule of your well-intentioned campaign is one thing; boycotts are another, and social activism history is rife with examples of customers grabbing torches and pitchforks in response to a company’s social efforts. That’s the obvious but sometimes-forgotten fact about controversial issues; there are always two sides, and when you come out on one, the folks on the other will feel alienated and not at all encouraged to buy your products.

Sometimes the criticism comes from your own team. Shortly after Donald Trump took office, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank stated that having “…such a pro-business President is a real asset for this country.” NBA star Steph Curry, one of Under Armour’s most important pitchmen, countered that he agreed with Plank “… if you remove the ‘et’.” Other Under Armour athletes were equally vocal. Customers threatened to boycott Under Armour products, sales slumped, and Plank apologized in full-page national newspaper ads.

If you’re not careful, you can also risk being branded as hypocritical. Apple and its CEO Tim Cook were actively promoting LGBTQ rights on Twitter,  but followers quickly listed the countries where Apple has factories or facilities where governments actively persecute their citizens. Should the hypothetical equipment company from the opening line of this article actually fight global warming on Twitter, it could expect to see a similar list of countries where it manufactures its products, and where processes may be less clean than what the Paris Accords dictate.

Additional Considerations

  • Does your company have a corporate code for social responsibility? This can help define who is allowed to represent the company on social platforms, potentially limiting legal liability. Having said that, your CEO and senior leaders are, in fact, representatives of your company – Jeff Bezos can add “My views are my own, not those of my company” to his tweets, but his followers are going to assume he speaks for Amazon.
  • Know your customers – know them really, really well. It’s not enough to THINK they’ll agree with your stance on a controversial issue; you need to know what to expect. Most companies don’t have the kind of deep customer attitudinal intelligence to be assured of this. At the very least, take the time to do some focus groups to test your proposed messaging.
  • Brand activism has to be authentic. Does your CEO or company have any past history of support for this issue through charitable giving or a foundation, or participation on boards or at events? If not, your activism may be construed as mercenary and could backfire.
  • Your CEO and/or leaders should meet first with the board and marketing teams in charge of social media to walk through specifically what they are and are not comfortable saying, and equally important, why they’re choosing to take this stand and why now is the time to take it. A good discussion on the potential risks and rewards should be part of this meeting.
  • Consider an approach of collective action, as opposed to unilateral messaging. Partnering with like-minded companies on issues that are important to your company will lessen the chance of consumer backlash, as well as increase the chance that your customers will hear it. For instance, CEO’s of 14 major food companies co-signed a letter supporting climate-change initiatives.
  • Get ready for responses, both positive and negative. You’ll need a robust monitoring service and a SWAT team of spokespersons ready, able, and authorized to answer questions, triage and refute negative responses, and thank customers who support your efforts. Make sure to capture ongoing metrics.

I hope this gives you some things to consider about the pros and cons of social activism, and some ideas on what would be required to adopt it as a corporate or brand strategy. If you have any questions, or want to delve further into this topic, I’d love to have a conversation. Please contact me at ddv.vincent@gmail.com or 314-323-6779.

­ David Vincent has spent 45 years working with blue-chip agricultural companies and agencies in New York City, Connecticut, Milwaukee and St. Louis, among other locations. He is currently based in Nashville, Tenn.