Activism is alive and well in America—but do we forgive brands who don’t take our side?

by | Dec 17, 2019 | Public Relations

Led by the Occupy movement, Arab Spring, and other high-profile events, the last decade has been defined by activism, as people young and old came to realize that if they wanted change, they had to make sure their voices were heard. That mindset has spurred a consumer demand for brands and businesses to speak out on behalf of their communities and causes they care about. New research from Ruder Finn takes a closer look at activism—who is acting, what actions they are taking and why, and how companies may or may not be impacted.

The study, Activism is Mainstream, surveyed nearly 9,000 people—and found that 53 percent of Americans took an action in support of a social cause over the past six months. Of those who said they did so, 68 percent took multiple actions over the past six months, ranging from signing a petition and donating, to participating in a protest. And, while most might assume that activism is driven by the younger generations, the study found that action was equally taken from Gen Z to Boomers.

Activism is alive and well in America—but do we forgive brands who don’t take our side?

“Conversations around issues ranging from gun control to climate and everything in between are louder and more passionate than ever, and increasingly calling attention to the role that individuals and organizations play in addressing them,” said Monica Marshall, head of RF Relate and Ruder Finn’s DC office, in a news release. “This study was inspired by a need to provide deeper insights into what sparks activism, what actions are being taken and how companies should, or should not, respond.”

Of the actions people took, one-third were related to a company, with half supporting a company by purchasing a product or sharing information about the company they work for because they were proud of its social stand. Nearly the same number of people, however, took an action against a company, such as boycotting a product or quitting or considering quitting, because of the company’s stance on an issue.

Activism is alive and well in America—but do we forgive brands who don’t take our side?

Americans split on whether they believe companies will deliver on their promises, but the majority are willing to forgive

The study specifically asked about the recent Business Roundtable announcement and the 180 companies that signed a pledge stating that “the purpose of a company is to promote an economy that serves all Americans.” When asked if they believed companies would deliver on this promise, 53 percent of all respondents said “no.”

Activism is alive and well in America—but do we forgive brands who don’t take our side?

With that said, nearly three quarters (73 percent) of respondents said they would forgive a company for a taking a stand if the company explained why it was important, if they could see how the decisions were connected to their products and services, if they believed it was part of their history and not marketing and if their employees were supportive. More specifically, in a supplemental survey, 51 percent would forgive a company if they took a stand on a societal issue that was against their personal belief if the CEO explained why the company took that stand. In fact, only 18 percent said they would not forgive a company and 9 percent would only forgive them if they changed their stance.

Activism is alive and well in America—but do we forgive brands who don’t take our side?

The study further highlights that authenticity is key when it comes to companies supporting social issues. Respondents noted that companies should avoid supporting a cause under pressure from external factors, versus truly investing in the societal cause. They also believe companies should avoid doing business with other companies that do not share their same values.

Top 5 companies people admire because they take stands on issues:

Activism is alive and well in America—but do we forgive brands who don’t take our side?

Biggest drivers of action

News stories and social media were the strongest drivers of action. Yet, people were more likely to be inspired to act in support of societal cause based on the involvement of their company (23 percent) over influence from family and friends (18 percent).

The study also asked an open-ended question about the social issues people were most interested in and the top five issues (unaided) were:

  • Animal health and welfare
  • Environment and climate issues
  • Gun control
  • Children (children’s health, education, safety, etc.)
  • Women’s issues

Read the full report here.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter


6 leadership skills to develop for crisis management

6 leadership skills to develop for crisis management

In times of crisis, PR managers rely on the skills we’ve developed over the years to make quick decisions and handle emergencies. Many businesses are facing difficult times and in need of crisis leadership skills more than ever. This article covers essential skills...