The social values of brands and companies remain top of mind for consumers, customers and cultural influencers. In fact, 70% of consumers believe brands must take a public stand on social and political issues. And 66% who do say it is because they believe brands can create real change.
This shift will continue to grow since transparency on values and business operations are increasingly essential to the younger generation. As a result, more leaders and founders are revisiting the open letter.
What is an open letter?
An open letter is a message intended for a specific person or group but made public for anyone to read. The purpose is to address an issue, explain a viewpoint, or rally a call to action. It is usually one component of a more extensive thought leadership, corporate or advocacy strategy.
Letters are traditionally a personal form of communication, which is part of the appeal. Although written for the public, open letters allow an author to connect with key communities and stakeholders directly, and with total control of the message but retain the tone and voice of a personal note.
Use cases & impactful open letter examples
The open letter is one of the most effective communications products because it allows for a controlled and nuanced discussion on controversial or potentially negatively perceived issues. The best ones are timely, convincing and authentic.
Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz used open letters regularly to explain hot-button company issues (like when they stopped saying Merry Christmas at stores or when they temporarily closed 8,000 stores for racial bias training). These letters received attention and praise from customers and the public, sparking broader media and public discussion.
Alternatively, Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario uses the open letter for advocacy. In one example, he wrote in response to the Trump administration's decision to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah, the most extensive elimination of protected land in America, to launch more significant action around the issues of importance to the company and its community.
More recently, Micha Kaufman, founder and CEO of the freelance platform Fiverr, published an "Open Letter to AI" in The New York Times. The letter positioned Kaufman as "an advocate for human talent,” explaining to "AI" that while it was a "unique and powerful tool, capable of extraordinary feats," Fiverr freelancers could help it "sound less robotic" and give its products "some personality." The letter preceded the launch a series of new AI categories that Fiverr now offers.
When and where to publish an open letter
As transparency (and the leadership communications that must accompany it) becomes increasingly important to consumers and partners, the open letter is a tactic to seriously consider. It can be a way to temper negative news such as layoffs or show advocacy for issues stakeholders care about. It can build momentum behind a vision and mission or even be used to help tell a company’s story and talk about who benefits from their work or why. For new teams and first-time founders, letters can also be a way to help build a public persona.
Traditionally, open letters were published in critical publications or industry magazines. This is still an important channel, but today a company blog, corporate or personal social media channels, and personal substacks are also highly effective places to share these letters.
Although these owned and shared channels allow for direct publishing, open letters should not be abused. The threshold for publishing an open letter should remain high and follow best practices including:
- Reserve open letters for major events and issues impacting society, a group of people or the industry at large. The right time to engage is when you can add value to the conversation because you have an insider perspective, unique observation or longstanding experience to something happening in the news or industry.
- Make it personal. Express emotion, use your own voice and show that you have skin in the game.
- Be clear and concise. Your letter should be easy to read and understand. Use simple language and avoid jargon or technical terms.
- State your purpose clearly. Explain why you are writing the letter and what you hope to achieve.
- Provide context. Ensure your readers understand the background of the issue and why it is crucial. Use evidence to support your arguments. Provide examples or data to back up your claims. It might be a letter, but visuals and graphs can be compelling.
- Address any concerns or criticisms head-on. Do not ignore potential objections; instead, provide your perspective on them directly.
- Be respectful. Even if you are passionate about the issue, maintain a professional tone and avoid personal attacks or insults.
- Finally, be prepared for risks of backlash and negative feedback. Anticipate potential criticisms and objectives and have a clear plan for responding.
When done right, open letters can be an extremely powerful tool for leaders and companies to deepen their connection with their communities, grow their profiles, and move their businesses forward.
This post was first published in March 2023 on the SHIFT Communications website.