Back some years ago when many of us were ‘spring chickens’ one of the golden rules of PR was that companies did and should not have opinions on politics because they were corporate entities and not people.
A few different techniques were used, but most of the time journalists were told that individual companies did not have political opinions. Those big corporations who did need to lobby did it mainly through powerful trade bodies they belonged to and ‘connections’ at the top.
Otherwise the rule was ‘as a company, you should stay out of politics, religion and sex because all these subjects are liable to strong dispute and disagreement’. People take politics personally, which makes it dangerous for the corporate world.
As it was in the past, and today is no different, the trade bodies play a large part in watching over their specific sectors opposing or supporting relative legislation, which is of course political. And there are many agencies now dedicated to political lobbying for big corporations. They are specialized and located in places like Washington or Brussels.
However, today the world has changed and a growing number of consumers are demanding that companies and their brands stand up for what they believe in whether the issue is controversial or not.
In the latest US elections, as we have already witnessed, it may not be possible any more for brands to stay out of politics and business leaders and their advisors need to be strategically thoughtful and smart about addressing the issues. Public trust in government and institutions is on a downward path as people demand new levels of transparency and the right to know. Hail to the rise of crypto-currencies which is no more than the opportunity brought about by a total loss of credibility in the banks and anger against them.
Consumers and employees want to know what companies and brands stand for and these must be able to respond fast and convincingly.
For professionals like ourselves, this is an enormous responsibility and very challenging, but it is also an opportunity. Today, saying nothing can be riskier than saying something; people demand that companies be involved and the credibility of the brand is at stake.
There is no doubt, save a world ruled by dictators, that this trend is here to stay. Consumers want brands to be more human, to have a social conscience, to care about the environment, women’s place in the market, the poor in Africa and so on and this requires companies to take a stance on political and social issues. Professionals need to consider if this stance will impact positively or negatively on the brand and to remember that you cannot please all the people all the time. Taking a political stance may improve brand loyalty, but not necessarily sales.
In the US elections dozens of companies were singled out for boycotts because of their ties to or support of Donald Trump and a big percentage of consumers are more likely to buy from or boycott a brand because of its stance on a social or political issue. For any brand, the safest bet is to ignore politics, but will consumers then take a negative look at brands which refuse to position themselves because of a feeling of non-transparency which they consider wrong.
Generation Z (the post millenniums) are active and our future consumers. They use smart phones to launch social media protests or boycott a product if the company’s values don’t meet theirs. This requires brands to think very carefully about what they can and do stand for and this trend is here to stay.
The current issues being discussed are mainly to do with the environment, equality and immigration in the western world and these issues naturally have a political aspect. Brands need to focus on the issues, not the politics.
Consumers increasingly want to feel that they support businesses which reflect their personal values whether these be eco-conscience or education and health in Africa. People don’t separate individuals from businesses anymore and therefore your personal thoughts in a public forum can damage your business. Today consumers form relationships with companies not only on the quality of their products and services, but also on how the company behaves and is perceived in the market. Companies today have a wider role than before in society, in other words, they are required to be more responsible and one hundred percent transparent. The implications of this, from a company standpoint, are that it requires a new way of examining who and what it is. This is more time consuming, more strategic and more expensive, but it is necessary. This is an important strategic role for PR in the future and it is already upon us.
In Catalonia, Spain, where I am privileged enough to live, for the last six months political issues have divided families to the extent that those with different opinions on the subject can no longer mix with those not affine to their ideas. They cannot talk to each other; mix with each other, hold family gatherings together; even their children cannot play together. And this has also affected companies who have taken a stance which is why, as the trend is here to stay, politics is still very unsafe in company life but cannot be ignored and, going forward, needs careful, responsible and strategic planning.