Kate HartleyKate Hartley

Should a brand get involved with supporting a social movement? We’re asked this question more than any other when brands approach us for crisis simulations and training.

Big social movements define an age. The 1960s conjures up images regarding the civil rights movement. The ’70s brought women’s rights, gay rights and the Vietnam protests. The ’80s saw AIDS activism. Today, the big issues we’re dealing with as a society include climate change, racial justice and trans rights.

Increasingly, organizations are expected to have an opinion on these complex and important issues. But they’re worried about getting it wrong.

Brands expressing a view on the big issues of the day feels like a new thing—in the past, so many organizations steered clear of getting involved in anything they perceived to be political—but in fact, brands have always had the power, if not always the inclination, to bring about change.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

A few years ago, I found myself in the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. I read a story there that made me realize brand activism, as we call it now, is nothing new.

In 1964, the year segregation officially ended in the U.S., Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against racial injustice, and the city of Atlanta—King’s hometown—threw a gala dinner to celebrate it. The city invited important business leaders to buy tickets to the dinner, but King was, at that time, still seen as a controversial figure, racism was rife and none of the city’s elite would attend.

The team organizing the dinner contacted Coca-Cola, which was—and still is—based in Atlanta.

Coke’s then-president was a man named J Paul Austin, who was originally from Georgia. He’d spent time in South Africa where he had seen first-hand the negative effects of apartheid not just on society, but on the economy. He agreed to intervene, and his letter to Atlanta is held in the museum. He said: “It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner ... We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.”

The dinner sold out.

This was a significant moment. Coca-Cola obviously was a big employer in Atlanta. But more than that, it was part of a soft drink industry that was politically charged. Soda fountains had been segregated and had been the subject and location of protests, including by King himself.

This created a connection between Coca-Cola and the civil rights movement in Atlanta: The Civil Rights Museum is now located on land that was donated by Coca-Cola.

Now, we can argue about whether this was a moral decision for Coca-Cola, or whether it was motivated by future profit. Perhaps the brand could see how the world was changing and wanted to be on the right side of history. Whatever the motivation, it was the right thing to do.

It shows that getting involved in politics is nothing new for brands. They can make significant and positive contributions to society. Those contributions can make good business sense. And, like Coke, it can mean landing up on the right side of history.

Increasingly, organizations are expected to get involved. Research from Kantar Media shows that people—especially younger generations, such as Millennials and Gen Z—expect brands to take a stand on social issues. Sometimes, not expressing a view can feel like complicity, or a failure to do the right thing. Last year, Netflix tweeted “To be silent is to be complicit” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. What does it say about an organization that doesn’t express support for racial justice, human rights or tackling climate change?

It sounds simple. But, as we’ve seen during the Black Lives Matter movement, organizations will face a backlash if they express support for a social movement when their own actions and track record don’t stack up.

Kantar’s research also shows that while consumers want brands to get involved and help bring about change, they want meaningful action, not lip service. Findings from Edelman’s Empowered Employee research show that employees also want meaningful action and increasingly are choosing their jobs based on personal beliefs, values and purpose.

So, brands are taking a stand on the things that matter to their customers and to their employees. If consumers are becoming more conscious about how they spend their money, and employees are being more conscious about the brands they work for, this isn’t just an ethical issue for brands. It’s a financial issue and a talent issue.

You have to walk the talk. Communication should come second to action. And when you’re deciding whether to take a stand on a social issue, it comes down to two critical things:

Do you have permission to comment? If you’re going to take a stand, you should be taking demonstrable action on the issue you’re talking about, not simply paying lip service. Behavior must align with your message. You must have earned the right to speak out and not trivialize the issue. Are you adding value to the debate or simply adding to the noise?

Does the stand you’re taking align with your values and can you prove that over time? The reason Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick worked for the brand was due to the fact that it was in line with past behavior and in line with the brand’s stated values. If a few people protested against Nike’s support, it wouldn’t ultimately hurt the brand.

Above all, your position must be authentic, it must be faithful to the brand’s behavior and values and it must be in line with what people expect from you.


Kate Hartley is co-Founder of crisis simulation company Polpeo, and author of “Communicate in a Crisis” (Kogan Page, 2019).