PR in Transition

2017 has brought a new administration and companies are still trying to understand where they fit into the new order. No longer are brands being expected to refrain from political discourse and issue advocacy; in fact, they are being forced to communicate and authenticate their identity in ways they have never had to before. So how do companies navigate these unprecedented waters?

First is a careful examination of the driving forces of change in the current economic-social-political ecosystem. A recent lecture by APCO North America Chairman Nelson Fernandez featured a number of factors including the rise of:

  • Socioeconomic inequality at the hands of innovation.
  • Nationalism and the “country first” mentality.
  • Subjectivity and the concept of facts and news being relative.
  • Reverse globalism brought by eastern countries beginning to champion free trade.
  • Social activism boosted by the advent of the “social media megaphone.”

These are all factors we are seeing, and will continue to see, affect the way industry not only interacts with the Trump Administration, but also its customers and stakeholders. To me, these factors scream to brands that they need to go beyond simply listing their values and issuing passive statements on public affairs. They need to actively participate in the conversation surrounding the policies that will shape the business landscape, or face being blindsided by new policies. I’m sympathetic to the considerations of risk that surround brands engaging in politics. It is no easy task to do. It takes a crystal clear understanding of a company’s purpose and values as well as a strong confidence in the values of its customers and investors. If companies can balance being authentic and consistent in their values, active in advocating for policies that align with those values and tactful in their communications, it can pay off massively in the eyes of consumers.

Take a company like Patagonia. They design, manufacture and sell outdoor equipment and apparel. Their mission is clearly stated: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” In and of itself, this is just talk, but looking at Patagonia’s track record of environmental activism in both the non-profit and legislative arena combined with voraciously loyal customers, its pretty apparent Patagonia is on to something. Environmental preservation is core to their identity and is built into everything they do.

Patagonia condemns politicians and policies which pose a threat to national resources and fund campaigns at the local, state and federal levels. For other companies, this level of involvement would seem like suicide, but with their values so core to their identity, customers know what they are buying from Patagonia not only is a quality product, but also a way to support causes they support.

This phenomena is true on both sides of the political spectrum too.

Take Chik-Fil-A for example. They sell delicious fast-food chicken. Their missions is to “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.” Very different from Patagonia, but still bold in their belief systems. Chik-fil-a has been active in supporting the Christian faith, both socially and politically. In 2012, then COO now CEO, Dan T. Cathy made public statements in opposition to same-sex marriage. Although there was severe public backlash from LGBT activists and supporters, it also prompted massive praise of Chick-fil-a in the form of a “Chik-fil-a Appreciation Day” which drew in millions and millions in sales and increased revenue by 12 percent in that year alone.

What I’m getting at is the trade-off between appeasing everyone by being passive and building loyalty by being vocal. Something tells me that more and more brands will move towards building loyalty through vocality. Although the implications of having lots of overt socially and politically active companies operating in a complex ecosystem is not quite known, I imagine current forces will cause the industry’s public relations norms to be thrown out the window. Companies will be forced to learn how to fit into the political conversation or be left in the dust by other companies that do.