5 steps for building a strategy to speak out on societal issues

by | Mar 1, 2023 | Public Relations

As a communications professional, you’re aware of how important it is to clearly articulate your brand’s values (or the values of your client’s brand). More and more, stakeholders want to do business with, or work for, companies that align with their purpose.

According to a recent SproutSocial study, 70 percent of consumers feel it’s important for brands to express a point of view on societal topics. Moreover, 70 percent of employees who say their company’s mission, vision and values align with theirs are likely to recommend their company as a great place to work, per 2022 Qualtrics research.

Given this reality, it would make sense that brands would have well-developed plans in place to speak out (or not) on today’s pressing topics social issues—ranging from reproductive rights to gun violence and voter rights.

Unfortunately, very few have developed these plans. My agency, Peppercomm, partnered with Ragan Communications in late 2022 on a survey of communications leaders to explore this subject. Our study showed that only 23 percent have created frameworks to help their organization respond to societal topics. Only two in 10 have begun work on these playbooks, while most (51 percent) report they have nothing in place.

The reality is a communications crisis stemming from a social issue can hit at any moment of any day. Your employees can launch a public activism campaign calling for better benefits. A reporter can ask why your executives donated to partisan political action committees. A customer can jump on social accusing one of your staff of discrimination. There are so many possibilities.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

Planning ahead and expecting the unexpected is the key strategy for successfully managing these new types of crises—and even coming out of a crisis a stronger brand than before.

Here are five steps for creating an effective strategy to ensure your company is ready, willing and able to respond quickly and effectively when the worst occurs.

1) Authenticity audit

Most companies have verbiage stating their mission, vision and values. When planning for responding to social issues, it’s crucial to deduce how closely the organization aligns with these stated values. Are they just words on a website that add sparkle for recruiting talent, or does your company actually live them internally and externally? For example, does your organization boast about the importance of diversity, but your 10-person board includes seven older, white men? An authenticity audit involves exploring the link between values and action through tactics like a content scan of your owned platforms; internal and external surveys; and analyzing audience sentiment around your brand and its mission.

2) Risk assessment

Armed with your audit findings, develop a risk-vs.-reward rubric. The key is to determine how credible the organization’s values and points of view are on particular topics and assign a reputational risk score to each one. A value on which the company talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk would rate a higher risk score. For example, after your state passes new restrictions on abortions, your organization (which values gender equity) wants to lend its support to reproductive rights. But your corporate health insurance will not cover an employee who goes out of state for care. If your company speaks out, you run a serious risk of being called a hypocrite by staff and other stakeholders. A full risk assessment provides a clear roadmap for communicators and leadership through a data-driven evaluation of the organization’s credibility on all relevant issues.

3) Issues response framework

At this point, it’s time to update, edit or even completely rework your plan for responding to a societal crisis. This new playbook will live alongside your operational crisis response strategies to arm the brand with how best to prepare for, react to and evaluate responses to issues that may arise. This requires you to interview key stakeholders (both internal and external) to:

  • Determine the best messages and proof points to use when communicating about society issues
  • Review any relevant company data (hiring practices; pay and benefits; safety records; political ties; etc.)
  • Define clear leadership roles and objectives for the company if ever confronted with a crisis.

4) Governance

The next step is for a brand to revamp its governance structure to outline which topics can and should be addressed based on the company’s track record and risk tolerance; and which topics should be avoided. The structure also should cover who needs to approve any statements and how the statements will be shared internally before being released externally. This plan aims to ensure an organization avoids making needless mistakes and provides staff with clear direction in a living, accessible document.

5) Crisis simulation

The last step is to conduct an in-depth crisis simulation and workshop with key leadership. Develop a scenario (e.g., an incident of gun violence in your community) and replicate how this would play out in real time. Staff members should be assigned to role play various constituents (employees, customers, media, neighbors) asking if and when your company will speak out on the issue or event. Your leaders should follow the issues response framework and governance plan to guide their moves. After the simulation, it’s critical to conduct a review to determine how each constituent group reacted to your decisions, what went right and what can be improved.

In summary, when it comes to strengthening a company’s reputation, actions speak louder than words. It’s time to eliminate empty promises and build out robust strategies for managing societal issues. Your employees, clients, customers, business partners and others are counting on you.

Jackie Kolek
Jackie Kolek is Chief Innovation Officer at Peppercomm.