Words Matter: Tips for Crafting Public Statements on Social Issues
How internet culture has shifted the expectations regarding companies public statements and social activism — and how to adjust.
“Congrats Adidas on losing 163 lbs!!!” read the tweet sent by WeightWatchers after Adidas dropped Kanye West following his antisemitic outburst last month. Not sent via press release, not as a statement from the CEO, but nevertheless an authentic example of public statements in opposition to antisemitism crafted for a unique platform and communicated directly to Twitterverse stakeholders.
Congrats @adidas on losing 163 lbs!!!
— WeightWatchers (@ww_us) October 25, 2022
A succinct tweet will not suffice for most social issues companies must take a stand on. Words matter and platforms matter when companies address racial equity, diversity and inclusion and reproductive justice. However, just the fact that a weight loss company made a public statement about antisemitism and its rise is emblematic of the time in which we live: where businesses cannot afford to stay silent on what they believe in.
Companies have long been activists behind the scenes through lobbying, political contributions and funding issue-based work. That playbook has changed. We now live in a time where corporate activism has a bigger spotlight as we continue to lean into image-heavy content through Instagram and TikTok, Gen Z continues to join the workforce and the fact that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an integral piece to any company’s culture.
There is both perceived and real pressure on brands and companies to take a public stance on social issues. Silence is increasingly seen as being complicit, and consumers expect companies and their leaders to go on the record when the statement aligns with a company’s values and are tied to tangible actions.
Making public statements doesn’t have to be scary. Many companies and organizations have done it well. Here are some general guidelines and tips to inform the process for your next public statement:
1. Ask yourself “why am I making this statement?”
If the answer to that question is “because everyone else is,” that’s not a great answer. Take time to reflect and assess the reasoning behind your statement. Make sure it aligns with your values, your actions and your culture behind the screens. Your employees will be honest (often publicly) if they feel you are being inauthentic.
2. Determine your audience and impact
It’s important to think about how an issue impacts your stakeholders and recognize the impact your statement will have on people. If a statement serves you more than it serves your stakeholders, it may be best to keep quiet.
3. Carefully consider who is drafting the statement
There have been several very public situations where a social media employee has crafted a message on behalf of a company. While that individual may have felt/believed in the words they were writing, they did not reflect the company’s actions or culture. Unfortunately this reflects poorly on both. We recommend statements come from the top. We also caution managers from directing an employee with “lived experience” to craft statements on behalf of the company if they’ve never been asked to advise on a company’s policies directly related to the issue. It’s taking advantage of a human without giving them the power to influence change.
4. Be direct, transparent and specific
Companies are most successful in making public statements when they address specific situations, outline actions and are transparent. If you have messed up or fallen short, say it. If you have taken action or are committing to something new, follow through. There are no perfect statements, but when you focus on substance over style, you will ensure your stakeholders feel cared for and understood.
5. Expect feedback
Public statements are not meant to win over your audience. Depending on the issue, you should expect feedback and backlash. While challenging to handle at first, it means your message was received. Assign an employee or team as a “responder” and equip them with approved messages and actions to respond thoughtfully, not impulsively, to good-faith inquiries. When handled correctly, you will foster relationships with your stakeholders.
6. Don’t stop communicating
We use the term “issue fluency” to define how a company speaks out consistently in ways that demonstrate an understanding of a small group of issues most important to their key stakeholders. For example, Ben & Jerry’s has a long track record of speaking out about racial injustice, climate change and refugee rights. They dedicate time and resources to sharing information on these issues on all of their platforms, with employees and through action. A good place to start is looking at your company’s existing CSR commitments.
Communicating authentically in the face of social issues is challenging, but it’s not impossible. Companies that invest time and resources to build social issues into their issues management plans will fare better than those who wait for the storm to pass.
Sarah Hogan is co-founder and Chief Purpose Officer of Barefoot PR, a public relations and design firm based in Denver.