bottle of coca cola spilled on the pavement
PHOTO: Krisztian Matyas | unsplash

Over the last 10 years, companies have embraced social responsibility as part of their mission. For some, it is core to what they do. Bombas, for example, donates socks to help the homeless for every pair they sell. Others have made the decision to align themselves with one or more causes that reflect the values of the brand and/or executive team. Wendy’s has long been a supporter of foster care adoption and have now expanded their social mission to also include environmental sustainability.

For the most part, social responsibility and values-driven initiatives enhance brand perception and the customer experience by delivering a "feel good" element to the purchasing process. But what happens when values become entangled in politics?

It's Hard to Escape Politics

We’ve recently seen Delta Airlines and Coca Cola take a stand against the new voting laws in Georgia. In response they were labeled "Woke Corporate Hypocrites" and people quickly took sides for and against. With the polarization of politics over recent years this should come as no surprise. Along with polarization has come a new political awakening with more public discourse about political topics, driven by 24/7 media outlets and social media.

As a result of this awakening and heightened sensitivity there’s now a natural tendency to view values and causes through a political lens. By default, that ends up encapsulating corporate social responsibility. I’ve lost count of the conversations I’ve had with friends over the last four years that begin with “I won’t buy from Company X because they support Cause Y,” or “I only buy from Company A because they support Cause B.” Today, corporate social responsibility programs and cause alignment have the ability to both positively and negatively impact brand perception.

I hope that our current political climate doesn’t dissuade companies from social responsibility initiatives. They are a much-needed source of support for many causes. But with the enhanced sensitivity around issues and causes, as companies think about impact on brand perception, it’s also important to consider how a social responsibility decision factors into the customer experience.

Related Article: What Corporate Social Responsibility Looks Like in 2020

How Will Your Social Responsibility Efforts Impact Customer Experience?

First, how widely are you planning to communicate your commitment to a cause or initiative? Is it something that could be perceived in a political or polarizing fashion? Is it something that will be publicized externally or only communicated internally? If it is going to be publicized externally will that be in the form of a page on your website in the About Us section or will it be integrated into corporate and product messaging?

The louder you are externally, the more aware your prospects and customers will become of your cause alignment — which may be your goal. If your cause has the potential to be controversial or politicized it is important to arm your customer-facing functions with messaging relating to the “why and how” of the causes you support so they can consistently and articulately communicate this externally and answer questions in the appropriate way. In creating your plan consider both positive and negative reactions. A well thought out communications plan ensures that social responsibility initiatives will enhance and solidify a brand with its key constituents.

A more difficult challenge is aligning the values of individual employees with the values and mission of the corporation. What happens when personal political positions collide with business?

Our working environments have become more informal, with companies encouraging employees to engage on their behalf on social media. It’s not unusual for work colleagues and customers to connect on various social media platforms. In the early days of social media, when everyone was sharing pictures of kids, dogs, cats and vacations, it was a nice way to create a human connection between a company and its customers, and to strengthen relationships. Most companies created social media policies and guidelines to ensure that employees were posting appropriately about the company and for a while that worked well. You can’t, however, separate the perfect company posts from the personal posts in a social media environment. As politics and personal political views invade social media, individual values and political positions become visible to customers and have the potential to impact a customer’s view of the company. 

Related Article: Social Media Hashtags: Protecting Your Brand's Reputation and Trust

Time to Revisit Our Social Media and Communications Guidelines

As it turns out, this is not a one-way issue. Customers have their own social footprint which have the potential to negatively impact key relationships within the companies they do businesses with. I decided to write this article after a conversation with a sales colleague from another company who told me that his customer Zoom interactions were becoming challenging because of political issues. 

Over the last year as we’ve all gotten used to living in a small bubble, both our social and professional connections have come through video sessions. We’ve become increasing informal in our business interactions in both attire and style and those initial “how are you?" conversations have become more than a “fine, how are you?” response. My colleague told me that his customers now want to chat about politics which he finds really uncomfortable since his views frequently differ from theirs. His way of dealing with this is to say “I’d be happy to chat about politics with you over a beer when it’s safe to do that but for right now let’s move on to ….” This is a good situational response, but it doesn’t really address the issue at the corporate level.

All of this makes me think that we need to expand our social media and communications guidelines to include directions for navigating political discussions in a business environment. I know that some people have personal and professional social media accounts and don’t mix the audiences, which makes sense. I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I do know that this environment is most likely here to stay, and that we need to have guidelines that frame these issues and provide direction on how to engage and not engage. If any of you have made progress in this area I’d love to hear about it.