When Activists Get Active, What Should You Do?

Posted by: in Communication Strategy, Corporate and Strategy on August 22, 2014

Starbucks_protestStarbucks updated a statement on its web site earlier this month explaining its business practices and operations in the Middle East. The statement is largely the same as the one originally posted in February 2010 in response to false rumors that Starbucks was funding Israel and the Israeli army – rumors that resulted in sometimes violent boycotts of Starbucks stores in the past.

One small but notable difference in the updated statement is the inclusion of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s name in the Q&A question: Is it true that Starbucks or Howard Schultz provides financial support to Israel?

Like many CEOs, Schultz isn’t afraid to express his points of view and his values – he’s publicly stated his support for Israel. And like many CEOs, he’s also careful to separate his personal views from the activities of his company. But in today’s social age, more and more customers and activists won’t make that separation. And as always, some who oppose the politics and views of your company and its leaders will take action against your company.

The Chik-Fil-A controversy a few years back provides another case in point. Their CEO Dan Caffey opened the door to the controversy when he expressed his view against same-sex marriage. This resulted in polarizing audiences – alienating an audience that launched boycotts against the restaurant chain, and galvanizing many core customers, who countered the boycotts by holding an appreciation day.

When the dust settled, two things happened to Chik-Fil-A. First, the company changed its behaviors: its philanthropic foundation stopped funding all but one of the groups questioned by the LGBT community. Second, its sales continued growing – maybe not spurred by the controversy as they were already on the rise, but obviously not hurt by it, either. Both sides of the issue claimed victory.

Activism runs the gamut from legitimate protests to outright lies and smear campaigns, and sometimes violence. While every activist situation has its differences, the most effective corporate leaders realize the best way to handle these situations requires a mix of listening to their audiences, not overreacting, sticking to the facts and their values, and being open to change.

Here are the ways effective leaders prepare for and respond to activism.

Listen to audiences, understand where you’re exposed.
The first step in being prepared is knowing those issues where you’re most exposed to potential activism. This means looking closely at your company’s policies, political and philanthropic interests, and geographic footprint, and identifying potential political and social hot buttons.

It also means listening to what your employees, customers and critics have to say about you. Take the feedback you’ve received through surveys, media monitoring and your customer call centers. What issues are repeatedly brought up about your organization? What personal views or affiliations of your leaders potentially leave you exposed?

If you don’t do it already, you’ll want to establish regular media monitoring and social media listening to track potential issues that could turn into crises. But don’t equate social media likes or shares with action.

Don’t overreact – slacktivism isn’t activism, and “likes” don’t mean actions.
“Slacktivism” is a term for lazy pseudo-activism, for example when people “like” a Facebook protest page to show their support. Recent research on slacktivism suggests that getting people to “like” a cause on Facebook actually reduces their likelihood to do anything. Having shown their support through a mouse click or a tweet, slacktivists don’t have incentive to do anything more. As television executive Shonda Rhimes said in a commencement address in June “A hashtag is not a movement.” She took a lot of heat for that remark, but she’s right.

So when a Facebook page against your organization is garnering hundreds or thousands of “likes” – keep an eye on it, but don’t jump to a knee-jerk reaction. Most of those campaigns go nowhere.

Don’t take the bait, just state the facts and be transparent.
A lot of online activism is little more than baiting – where an individual or group spreads misinformation or outright lies to earn attention for their cause. You don’t want to get into arguments with these individuals or groups. (Remember the absurd P&G rumors about its “satanic” logo?) But you do want to be sure your position on an issue is easily available at all times – your web site for example — especially when lies are being told about your company.

Stick to your values, but realize the consequences.
You have your values, customers have theirs. These aren’t always going to match – and that’s ok. You don’t need everyone to like your company or buy your products. Whether you choose to be silent or publicly vocal about personal views, they may be used against your company. So you should be ready to explain your values and defend them with a solid rationale. And be prepared to deal with the consequences of audiences who don’t agree with you.

Be open to change.
Finally, keep listening to your audiences – even your critics. Ask yourself if the boycotters, protesters, even the “slacktivists” have a point. Is there something about your business practices that should change? In many ways, this is simply good-old-fashioned responding to customer needs. (Not to be confused with giving in to crackpots – that’s never recommended. See above – don’t take the bait.)

If you’re really listening to your audiences, your customers and critics, there’s rarely any reason to be reactive. You’ll develop understanding of the issue from another perspective. And you may decide to change policies or business practices as a result. Above all you’ll be ready to state your positions, correct misinformation and protect your company’s reputation.

By: Kieran Fagan

Kieran is a leader in WCG's Corporate & Strategy practice who immigrated from the "client side" of corporate communications three years ago.

Find me on: Twitter
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