Is your company overlooking employees as it goes political?

Shel Holtz's picture

Employee Communications in the Age of Corporate Activism


What was it like on the Budweiser brewery floor the day after the Super Bowl?

Did Audi workers eye one with suspicion, wondering where they stood on the equal pay issue?

Corporate activism is on the rise. Consider just a few examples:

  • Business coalitions are rising up in Southern states to oppose legislation that would allow discrimination based on gender identity or force transgender people to use the bathroom associated with the gender on their birth certificates. Among the companies lending support to these advocacy groups are the likes of Delta Airlines, International Paper, and Marriott International.
  • More than 125 tech companies filed a joint court brief supporting a lawsuit to stop President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
  • Individual CEOs are speaking out against Administration policies, including the leaders of American Airlines, Lyft, Apple, Ford Motor Company, Facebook, and even Koch Industries.
  • Starbucks is facing backlash from CEO Howard Schultz’s plan to hire thousands of refugees at its locations around the world over the next few years; opponents have threatened a boycott and other actions. Meanwhile, a boycott is already underway targeting Budweiser over Anheuser Busch’s Super Bowl commercial imagining Adolphus Busch’s immigration to America.

Media from The New York Times and the Drum to the Harvard Business Review and are reporting on the phenomenon. In a recent post, Edelman Global Strategy Director David Armano wrote, “Advertising and brand storytelling often reflects the culture, trends and increasingly the societal issues of the day. But in bringing the three together it also presents a tall order for today’s brands who will likely hit the target with some and totally miss with others.” But brands that aren’t relevant in our lives, he notes, are brands in decline.

Crowd Companies founder Jeremiah Owang was more blunt: “Companies have no choice to consider their political bent,” he wrote; “not just behind closed doors, but now in public.”

How many companies that are becoming political brands have considered their own employees in their equations? It’s one thing for the corporate values statement yellowing on the wall where it has been tacked for years to proclaim the company’s commitment to diversity. It’s another for religious, conservative-minded employees to read about their employer’s support for transgender rights in reporting being shared across social media. It doesn’t take much to imagine the pressure they feel when friends from their church challenge them about their employer’s position.

It’s equally easy to imagine lines drawn among employees based on whether they support or oppose their company’s advocacy. Deep divisiveness can erupt among staff who work side-by-side making old union-management conflicts look like a case study in civility.

And what of employees who have joined employee advocacy groups thinking they would just help the company promote its products and employer brand? Are they expected to attract the attention of trolls by taking up the cause?

After all, how many companies actually hire to their values?

As companies become “political brands”—something most will feel compelled to do—employee communications and Human Resources departments will need to take steps to maintain engagement and harmony in the workplace. I haven’t yet read a single post on how to approach the issue, either reactively as employees come to grips with their companies’ public positions on controversial political and social causes or proactively so current staff and new hires know what to expect from their leadership.

In my February webinar—at noon EST on Thursday, February 23—I will offer concrete recommendations for setting up a strategy and implementing tactics to maintain a productive and unified workplace as companies take up causes and promote them through the media, through industry alliances, and through social media. Your registration is good for you and your entire communications or HR team, entitles you to watch a video replay at your convenience, and includes a tip sheet.




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