Research, case studies & solutions to address a rising trend
By Lise Michaud
Corporate activism is a real challenge for many organizations and communication professionals. A new publication titled Corporate Activism: research, case studies and solutions for communicators to address a rising trend, edited by Prof. Dr. Ana Adi, and published by Quadriga University, has been recently released.
We're reproducing below the forward written by Prof. Dr. Ana Adi, with her permission.
the trend and its implications Gap between belief and action
In recent years, corporate activism has intrigued, puzzled and challenged communicators. While in the past, activism and corporate communications were often presented as incompatible if not totally opposed (for that, all you need to do is leaf through any book of PR history published before 2000), a shift into what corporations can and should acknowledge seems to have haven taken place around 2010. Whether this is related to changes in technology (and more specifically, the rise of social media) or the increased visibility and success of social movements, or a combination of both, is still up for debate. It is also questionable whether critical PR scholarship calling for an integration of activism and communication (see my recent edited collection on Protest Public Relations, for example) has finally reached practitioners and corporations.
What is certain is that the term 'corporate activism’ has entered the mainstream, implying not only that the time is right but also that it is increasingly that corporations are more explicit and more consistent about the values they have, the causes they promote, and the ideas, expected organisations and interest groups are necessary, and that a world without alliances and values is a bleak one. At the beginning of PR history, around 1900, business leaders such as railroad tycoon William Henry Vanderbilt unapologetically calling for the public to be damned (“one of the great public relations disasters in American business history”, according to American Heritage magazine); today – with extreme voices from both political extremes on the rise and the youth calling for a better, cleaner, sustainable future – business must tread a more nuanced path. Or perhaps corporate activism is just a new fashion cynically adopted v ́by corporations in a scenario reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” world. ideologies they support. Perhaps there is a logical, natural evolution here: from the early days of PR (when PR was seen as essentially a slightly more sophisticated version of propaganda deployed by and on behalf of and ideals organisaitons in a one-way direction towards the public) to the belated realization that mutually-beneficial relationships between people, organisations and interest groups are necessary, and that a world without alliances and values is a bleak one. At the beginning of PR history, around 1900, business leaders such as railroad tycoon William Henry Vanderbilt unapologetically calling for the public to be damned (“one of the great public relations disasters in American business history”, according to American Heritage magazine); today – with extreme voices from both political extremes on the rise and the youth calling for a better, cleaner, sustainable future – business must tread a more nuanced path. Or perhaps corporate activism is just a new fashion cynically adopted v ́by corporations in a scenario reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” world.
What are the examples that come to mind when corporate activism is mentioned? What does corporate activism actually mean?
In 2014, Procter & Gamble focused on the empowerment of women with their social media #likeagirl campaign (CampaignLive 2015; Always), an expansion of the idea of confidence into a wider emotional territory, beyond just female hygiene products. In 2018, Ben & Jerry’s launched a “protest ice cream” called Pecan Resist (the proceeds from the ice cream sales go to organizations who oppose the Trump administration) (Dommu 2018). The same year, Starbucks closed its stores for racial bias training (Calfas 2018, This American Life 2018) and Nike started a collaboration with athlete Colin Kaepernick to highlight their pro-diversity commitment.
Is this truly activism or just another way to increase sales by forging closer connections with a community or consumer group? Seen through Chris Anderson’s Long Tail perspective, these examples show companies opting for a conceptual, ideological or political niche, putting pressure on their consumer base, forcing out those who do not agree or align with another choice. This leaves them with smaller consumer communities that are more loyal and easier to connect with due to the shared interests and values identified. This means that, through activism, companies willingly embracing division. While this division might be desirable externally – it might turn, after all, into a matter of better, clearer positioning – this presents many challenges and risks, internally and internationally.
Let’s revisit the examples above, all US-based and thus addressing political, cultural and historical specificities. What if Ben & Jerry’s would roll out their protest ice cream anywhere else where protests have been occupying the public’s imagination and spaces – Bucharest, Budapest, Hong Kong? What if Starbucks decided to go for racial bias training in France or in any of the Gulf countries where they are so popular? And what if that story of empowerment and confidence by Procter & Gamble would not apply to equal pay or parental leave?
Can activist stances be exported? And what if organizations become the focus of another organization’s activism or even another state?
This reader aims to tease out answers from practitioners, members and alumni of Quadriga University of Applied Sciences’ network. Conceived as a collection of research updates, opinion pieces, case studies and practical insight geared at communication practitioners and communication students, this reader has been designed as a conversation starter as well as classroom material. It is therefore structured in three parts: research updates, case studies, and tools and solutions from practitioners.
To cover the background and evolution of corporate activism, there are two introductory articles: Anthony Gooch’s exploration of radical uncertainty and its influence on corporate activism, and Hemant Gaule’s article about corporate activism in India, focusing in particular on the drivers, risks and repercussions with some fantastic examples.
The Research section is dedicated to some of the studies often referred to by contributors to this series: Weber Shandwick and KRC’s research into employee and CEO activism covered by Stephen Duncan and Johanna Hille; BRC’s research into creating a culture of purpose covered by Phil Riggins; and Kerstin Lohse-Friedrich’s study of China’s public diplomacy and its reactions to activism by western corporations. They all provide rich insight into perceptions and expectations of corporate activism as well as new perspectives.
The Case Studies section is designed as classroom material. Joyce Costello reviews the evolution of Nike’s corporate activism over the past 30 years and some of Nike’s actions that conflicting with its declared values. Sebastian Biedermann and Sergiy Smetana’s case takes us into the future, discussing alternative sources of protein. They provide a detailed background on the issue and raise questions from a German’s association perspective.
Finally, the Tools and Solutions section puts forward a variety of solutions from practitioners, for practitioners. Here, Jo Detavernier reviews his five questions around embracing corporate activism; Mike Klein focuses on internal audiences and their reactions to corporate involvement with corporate activism; and Virginie Coulloudon proposes a new, all-inclusive approach. Finally, the closing of the section and the reader is made by Thomas Stoeckle, who focuses on ethics and the seven traits of ethical leaders.
ABOUT PROF. DR. ANA ADI
Prof Dr Adi writes, teaches and researches topics related to storytelling, protest public relations and corporate activism. Prior to joining Quadriga University of Applied Sciences and running their executive MBA Communication & Leadership program, Dr Adi has worked, lived and studied in the USA (with a Fulbright scholarship), Belgium, Bahrain, Thailand and the UK (and travelled far beyond). She is the Chair of the Digital Communication Awards in Berlin since 2015 and a member of the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission since 2018. She has just launched Protest Public Relations: Communicating Dissent and Activism (Routledge) and is currently working on a podcast series called Women in PR.