Most people (71%) expect businesses to take a stance on social movements and knowing when and how to speak up can be a new and ever-evolving challenge for businesses to navigate.

Businesses can look to some of the most recognizable brands who have taken stances on social issues for lessons on how to navigate this new territory in 2019.

PR Lessons from 3 Brands Who Take Strong Stands on Social Issues

Here’s how three well-known companies have successfully managed the PR challenges of corporate social responsibility.

Patagonia: Know Which Issues Are Relevant to Your Brand

Since its beginnings in the 1970s, Patagonia positioned itself and its brand in the forefront of environmental conservation movements.

Because Patagonia closely aligned its brand purpose with these issues, its customers expect the company and its leadership to take hard and sometimes political stances on environmental causes.

In 2018, Patagonia’s “Protect Public Lands” campaign involved endorsing political candidates that listed protection of national parks on their platform. They also announced that they will be donating their $10 million tax-break to efforts fighting climate change.

patagonia social issues protect public lands

“Your corporate purpose is your North Star in determining whether to respond to certain movements,” said Steve Cody, CEO of Peppercomm, a digital communications firm.

This approach to social movements would not work for every company, but Patagonia has always and unwaveringly aligned its brand with environmental issues and its customers have come to expect it.

Before speaking up about social issues, businesses should have a clear understanding of which issues are relevant to their brand and be consistent to avoid confusing their customers.

Nike: Know Your Customers and Make Decisions with Intent

Nike’s 2018 ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign also caused controversy. The ad featured 16 athletes from around the world who have challenged people’s perception of what an elite athlete can look like.

Its most controversial element was the inclusion of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the commercial’s narrator.

nike dream crazy kaepernick pr controversy

Since deciding to kneel during the National Anthem, Kaepernick has been a figure of controversy.

When Nike’s commercial aired, it received just as much criticism as praise, if not more. People who disagreed with Nike’s support of Kaepernick filmed themselves burning Nike’s shoes and many wondered if Nike would be able to recover.

A few days after it aired, however, Nike’s stock rose and they ended up generating more revenue that quarter than they had in a long time.

“They [Nike] made their decision with intent,” said Jen Fry, a social justice educator. “It was very data-driven, knowing who their clientele is and what they’ll accept.”

Nike’s decision, however, was not random and it wasn’t solely because Nike’s leadership supported the message behind the ad – it was a decision made with intent and backed by data.

“There’s nothing wrong with social responsibility being a strategic decision, but it should also be one that you strongly believe in and are willing to stand up for,” said Josh Weiss, CEO of 10 to 1 PR, one of the top PR firms.

Businesses should speak out social movements if their data informs them it will yield positive results.

Gillette: Understand the Consequences of Choosing Sides

Gillette’s 2019 “The Best a Man Can Be” ad sparked discussion.

The commercial encourages men to hold each other accountable in their treatment of each other and women, emphasizing the importance of teaching boys the importance of respect at a young age.

The message behind the commercial is a response to the #MeToo movement in which the “boys will be boys” mentality is often cited as an example of how men aren’t always held accountable for their actions.

The commercial itself has been received with controversy as one of the first ads launched in response to the #MeToo movement with a targeted male audience.

As can be expected, it has received both praise and criticism, though many believe the ad will prove successful in the long run.

“The campaign will, in the long run, do well for the Gillette brand, even if there is short-term fallout from those who interpret it as blaming all men for the world’s ills,” said Douglas Spencer, president of Spencer Brenneman, LLC. “Gillette’s long-term and growing market (Millennials and Gen Z) put far more importance on supporting brands that take decisive positions on social issues. Their loyalty long-term is worth a few lost sales now.”

Gillette’s ad resulted in lost sales when it first aired, targeting the next generation of consumers that tend to value companies that speak up about topics relating to gender equality.

Anytime a business speaks out on a controversial topic, they risk alienating part of their consumer-base.

By making data-driven decisions and by keeping in mind their target audience, however, they can reduce this risk and be better able to make decisions that the majority of their consumer-base will support.

Make Sure Your Stance Is Strategic and Authentic

The media landscape is changing and evolving every day, making it increasingly difficult for businesses to discern when and how to speak up on social issues.

By looking to these 3 examples of companies who took stances on social movements and people’s reactions to them and heeding the advice of experts from public relations agencies, businesses will be more likely to make choices in 2019 that reflect their brand purpose, branding strategy, and values of their customers.

Toby Cox

Toby Cox is a content writer and developer for Clutch, a B2B research and reviews firm.

She reports on topics related to public relations and emerging technologies.

author avatar
Staff Writer