How To Successfully Engage In Big Public Conversations In A Divided Political Moment

September 8, 2021

Published on October 30, 2020

There’s never been a more overwhelming moment for organizations and leaders looking at whether and how they should engage in larger public conversations and moments.

And if so, to what level and in what way?  

Last week,  David Barrett, the CEO of Expensify controversially raised the bar when he sent an email to all of the company’s customers on why they should vote for Biden. The stance and bold action led to a backlash from some customers upset at the use of their emails for a political message which is completely unrelated to the service Expensify provides.

Coinbase is on the complete other side of the public engagement spectrum.  In late September, the cryptocurrency exchange announced a ban on all political discussion at the office and stated its neutral stance.  In an open letter on Medium the CEO wrote that that political discussion and activism has “the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.”

Both of these organizations are extremes and not helpful for leaders and teams looking for how to build the kind of meaningful social involvement that reflects their values, is supported by their teams and unlocks additional brand value in some way for the organization.  

For that, the gold star example is the Ben & Jerry’s podcast,Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” which launched last month.  

The six part series is an engagingly discusses how the culture and infrastructure of racism in the US was established and perpetuated.

The podcast is also a playbook for how brands, startups and organizations can successfully drive powerful public conversations in a way that’s authentic, impactful and which unlocks the growing value that comes with being a purpose driven brand in a rapidly shifting cultural climate.

Going the opt out Coinbase path is actually going against the data on what employees and customers are looking for.   Research shows that today’s consumers, and Millennials and Gen Z specifically, expect companies to establish and advance clear stances on social or political issues.  For brands, there’s a lot at stake. Consumers want to spend their money with companies with progressive values: 87% of Americans would purchase a product from a company that advocated for an issue they cared about, while 88% would boycott a company they thought behaved irresponsibly.

Regardless of the stage or size of your company, the Ben & Jerry podcast offers several key lessons on how to  build a purpose driven brand with an authentic social advocacy voice and in a divisive political moment.

Identify Earned Public Space:

Ben & Jerry’s has a decades-long track record of speaking out about racial injustice which gives them the public social capital to engage in the issues of systemic racism and reform.  

A start up or organization doesn’t need to have years of social advocacy to step into a public conversation - but it does mean that before you do, be humble and honest about where your organization or team is starting from.

Start by having a look at the causes the team has organically supported, the community or social impact partners you might have engaged with and the public conversations that your leadership and communications team have already been involved with.

Choose The Public Conversations:

The world is filled with urgent public conversations that could benefit from more engagement and support.  At different times, news events and crises raise the profile on different issues - but which ones your team decides to engage on in a deeper way should be a strategic and intentional decision.  What we saw with Black Lives Matter momentum is that brands and leaders stumbled when they rushed reactively to join in, with little thought beyond optics or understanding of the issue.

In contrast Ben & Jerry’s builds on a social advocacy stack that includes blurring their ice cream business with their social justice beliefs.  For instance, the release of specialty flavors like “Justice ReMix’d,” which launched with a month long ice cream bus tour in St. Louis to promote criminal justice reform and close a St. Louis jail.  Similarly,  “Pecan Resist” was created to protest Trump administration policies the company described as “regressive and discriminatory.”

Being intentional and proactively strategic about which public conversations and issues your organization will focus on, means that this cause can become a genuinely holistic throughline in the business.

Have Something Useful To Say.

Solidarity statements and blog posts about wanting to do better or looking to do more in the future tend to fall flat for several reasons.  The first is they lack action or real impact, reek of reactive opportunism and are actually not additive to the conversation on the issue.

What makes the Ben & Jerry’s podcast so effective is the content.   The “Who We Are” podcast explores the aspects of American history that most of us didn’t learn at school.

From explaining how racially based voter suppression was codified into the Electoral College to highlighting how Balck wealth avenues have been routinely blocked and destroyed - the podcast genuinely adds value to an understanding of the challenges and their root causes.  

Look Beyond You Leadership Team To Say It.

Founders and CEOs are usually the go to spokespeople for social advocacy statements or discussions - but it is much more powerful (and on the pulse of what this moment is about) to cede that space to front line advocates, community leaders or experts.  

For instance, The Ben & Jerry’s “Who We Are” is hosted by New York Times bestselling author Carvell Wallace.  Each podcast also features additional resources on the project site - the voices and presence of the founders is completely absent from the  project platform.

Don’t Make It A One Off

"Our company has been centering our activism and advocacy work in the US on issues of racial justice and equity for the last five years and specifically on the need to reform our nation's criminal justice system for the last two years," said global head of integrated marketing Jay Curley. "This podcast is part of our larger body of work on these issues."

If your organization and leadership team decides to actively step into a social impact conversation, it’s essential that it’s not a one off event.  Instead, see it as the start of an ongoing journey.  

In the case of Expensify it will be interesting to see if and how they follow up this email with further engagement or action in the weeks ahead and what their bold action may inspire other organizations to do.

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