For years, consumers and consultants encouraged companies to lead with their values. Yet backlash against ESG and companies' political engagement–Disney's confrontation with FL–has forced a moment of reconsideration for large companies. If Disney can fall victim, is anyone safe?
As such, corporate communicators may lay low until the fractious political mood settles. That's a mistake.
The political divide doesn’t necessarily mean halting or distorting conversations about values that companies have with customers and other stakeholders. Here's why:
Politics vs. values
PR pros and their companies must distinguish between values and politics. Values isn't taking the right side in political debates. Instead, values is acting on one's beliefs.
For example, how people perceive a CEO’s values and how she acts on them influence consumers' views of the company's impact on their community.
A BPI survey examined the question of CEO political views and CEO actions.
1,624 US consumers were asked whether CEOs or “strong regulation and oversight from the government and outside groups” gave them more confidence that a company would positively influence their community.
- When a CEO with “politics similar to your own” was pitted against "regulation," 59% said regulation gave them more confidence. 41% chose the CEO.
- A change in wording made a difference. The survey pitted a CEO with “values similar to your own” vs. regulation. Here 54% chose the CEO, with 46% opting for government regulation.
- The biggest change was when the question was phrased as CEOs who “align their business strategy with the broader public interest” (60%) vs. regulation (40%).
In sum, a CEO's political expression does something. Values, a bit more. But what consumers want most is a CEO who acts on her values when shaping business strategy and activities.
Half the country?
These findings are evidence that communicating a company's values do not inevitably risk offending half the country. For instance:
- Ben & Jerry’s (68%) and Nike (67%), perceived as having progressive social-justice politics, were seen as companies “in line with the values of people like me.” And those figures include 56% of Republicans (Ben & Jerry's) and 58% for Nike.
- The data indicate most consumers aren’t judging these companies solely on their political expression. Instead, consumers assess them on how they advance values that matter.
- More evidence is that while Disney has taken a hit, it still is seen as in touch with the values of 61% of those surveyed.
- On the other hand, not every case works. Indeed, sometimes a company risks alienating half the country. The survey found half the country sees #BlackLivesMatter as in touch with its values. Roughly half feels the same way about the NRA.
Looking at gun regulation and gun safety, the survey found the value of corporate responsibility is key.
[Editor's Note: The survey was conducted May 6-12, after the Roe leak but before the shootings in Uvalde, TX, and Highland Park, Ill.]
- A bit more than half those polled, 56%, think it's appropriate for companies to engage in conversations about “how guns should be regulated.”
- Yet even more, 71%, like discussions about “how companies can be more responsible when selling guns.”
- Slightly fewer, 68% (including 59% of Republicans), favor dialogues about “how companies and communities can work together to limit the spread of illegal guns.”
These data make it clear consumers appreciate corporate responsibility. When companies show they understand this, consumers reward them. Consumers will do this even on issues where they may disagree with the company's position.
People respect consistency
The survey asked consumers if they would feel better or worse about a “large national employer opposed to a state voting law" that it said would have a disproportionate negative impact on communities of color.
- The results were almost even: 41% say it made them more positive and 38% more negative.
- When the company was portrayed as one with “a long history of commitment to civil rights,” the gap widened: 48% felt better about the company, only 30% felt worse.
While an isolated stance may look like politics, enduring commitments convey enduring values. Don’t chase the issue of the day; respond thoughtfully on issues that matter to your values.
The list of issues testing companies in the coming year is large. As the last weeks have shown us–on reproductive rights, racism and gun violence–tests of navigating the intersection of values and politics will continue.
For leading companies the answer isn’t silence. Instead, use a framework that links engagement with values in action to company responsibility and consistent commitment.
It’s not easy–the big issues worth leading on rarely are–but there is a tremendous opportunity for brands to break through the noise and connect with consumers.
Danny Franklin is a partner at BPI