Despite stakeholder demand, few brands show ‘corporate character’ by speaking out on societal issues

by | Oct 26, 2022 | Public Relations

When it comes to taking a stand on societal issues, consumers and stakeholders have made clear that your brand or business’s values are important—but only to the extent that your actions back up your words. And that level of action—identified as “corporate character” in a new research study from strategic comms agency Peppercomm—continues to be a rarity in Corporate America.

The firm’s groundbreaking new study on corporate character, in partnership with industry publisher Ragan Communications, is accompanied by the debut of its Corporate Character Barometer, a quarterly metric of brands’ willingness to speak out to stakeholders on important societal issues.

“Increasingly, all stakeholders—from consumers and businesses partners to employees and community members—want to engage with brands that align with their values. But, far too often, organizations hide their heads in the sand because they are reluctant to ‘take sides’,” said Steve Cody, Peppercomm CEO, in a news release. “Fortunately, there are strategies any organization can use to mitigate risk while seizing opportunities to connect with their audiences on issues that are deeply important to them.”

Brands are reluctant and unprepared to claim a POV

The firms’ survey of nearly 400 communications professionals in September 2022 focused on corporate character: Are brands ready, willing and able to help enter the conversation around important societal issues, ranging from voting rights to climate change?

While 70 percent of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a stand on social issues according to SproutSocial, the new research showed that more than half (55 percent) of communicators said their organizations are unlikely to take a stand on any topic in the coming quarter—which stands in stark contrast to another key statistic: 66 percent said it is important to their employees that the CEO communicates a point of view on controversial issues. This indicates a massive gap in company behavior versus stakeholder expectations, which can lead to serious problems for brands.

Survey results suggest that a major reason many brands are reluctant to speak out is because they are not fully prepared. Only 23 percent said they have created frameworks or playbooks to help their brand make timely, rational decisions and respond to recent societal controversies. About 20 percent said they started but did not finish their playbooks, while the majority (51 percent) reported they have no playbooks in place.

Despite stakeholder demand, few brands show ‘corporate character’ by speaking out on societal issues

Brands need to have the credibility to speak out in order to mitigate reputational risk

The firm’s conversations with communicators showed another key challenge: Not just deciding if they should speak out, but truly understanding if their brand has the credibility to do so. They reported that the risk of speaking out is exacerbated by the potential for being called out for not walking the talk. Many communications leaders report lacking the ability to take a look inside their organizations to ascertain all their risks. Understanding where gaps exist is critical to informing a process or playbook, but many say they lack the objectivity to do it themselves.

“In the ongoing debate around brands speaking out, one thing is clear: Stakeholders are tired of empty statements that lack real action. They are looking for organizations to walk the talk,” said Jacqueline Kolek, Peppercomm’s Chief Innovation Officer, in the release. “Existing frameworks need to evolve to consider the brand’s purpose and values, along with stakeholder sentiment, to understand if they have the authenticity to speak out on certain issues. Brands that create effective playbooks for determining if, when and how to respond to societal issues can not only reduce their risk of doing so, but also forge deeper connections with their audiences.”

Peppercomm’s new issues and crisis communications offering, RepCompass, fills that gap by helping clients to remove the emotion from the decision-making process and determine both the risks and potential benefits of speaking out and guiding senior leaders through the decision-making framework.

Corporate Confidence Barometer debuts at 18 out of 100

The survey forms the foundation for the new Peppercomm/Ragan Corporate Character Barometer (CCB). This index gauges on a scale of 0 to 100 how willing organizations and their leaders are to speak out on the societal issues making headlines at any given time. The CCB makes its debut at 18 in October—indicating that only 18 percent of organizations are very likely to speak out in the coming quarter. The CCB will be updated on a quarterly basis.

Read more about the Corporate Character Barometer here.

Peppercomm has launched its new issues and crisis communications solution, RepCompass, that guides organizations through the development of an issues response framework aligned to their unique values and stakeholders, and successfully prepares for those critical moments when they have an opportunity to speak out (or not).

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