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5 Factors to Consider When Taking a Stand on Social Issues.

Earlier this week, Starbucks announced that it would close its more than 8,000 stores on May 29th for racial bias training. While the decision is admirable, the organization didn’t really have a choice – something had to be done in response to the wrongful arrest of two African-American men who were simply waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks last week.

More and more, brands feel pressure to weigh in on social and political issues – from LGBT rights to immigration reform to racial discrimination. However, making that decision is not always as cut and dry as responding to a crisis like the one faced by Starbucks. For hospitals, in particular, the decision has evolved from whether to light a building pink for breast cancer to more complicated matters like challenging DACA.

A recent POLITICO article called out hospitals for remaining silent in the push for stricter gun legislation following the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The American Hospital Association and provider organizations have championed lifting restrictions on CDC research on gun violence and increasing funding for mental health, but they have been criticized for not advocating for further change.

Is that a mistake? Maybe, maybe not. If the organization has made its decision subjectively, that is the bigger mistake. Hospitals, and all brands for that matter, need a replicable process with consistent criteria that allow them to evaluate the “fit” of social and political issues so that they can:

  • Respond in real-time, when it matters
  • Explain the rationale for a decision to key stakeholders, including board members and community leaders
  • Ensure that the organization remains true to its mission
  • Prepare for the risks involved with taking a stand (or not taking a stand)

When does it make sense for an organization to step forward when it comes to social issues? An evaluation process should look at factors including:

How does this issue tie to our mission and values?

  • Wisconsin-based Penzeys Spices sells spices, but CEO Bill Penzey has always focused on advocating for social issues, with an emphasis on compassion for people (“Cooking is kindness, and that kindness can change the world”). From the start, he used the first and last pages of his catalog as op-eds related to a variety of social issues and evolved to using social media as a platform.
  • Penzeys customers were accustomed to hearing the CEOs point of view on a variety of social issues. It was surely no surprise to them when he took on Donald Trump. In an email to subscribers he wrote, “The open embrace of racism by the Republican Party in this election is now unleashing a wave of ugliness unseen in this country for decades. The American people are taking notice.” Brave – yes. But, in alignment with the organization’s DNA? Absolutely.

Are we a credible expert on this topic?

  • Brands can advocate for social issues for a variety of reasons and in many different ways. It may be a social media post, an op-ed, a business decision or a visit to Capitol Hill. For some CEOs, advocacy creates an opportunity to build thought leadership, but it is important that they offer some expertise related to the topic.
  • Is this issue related to your core business? Do you have a well-articulated point of view? Do your spokespeople have expertise related to this topic? Even better – do talking points already exist?

Does this issue impact/resonate with your stakeholder groups?

  • If an issue is a good fit for an organization, it should have some impact on key stakeholder groups. For instance, many hospitals challenged Trump’s travel ban that would have impacted employees and medical residency programs.
  • In the wake of the Parkland shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it would no longer sell assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and guns to customers under age 21. While this move may have alienated a segment of its customer base, Dick’s built tremendous goodwill among youth sports families, its bread and butter. About 79 percent of consumer sentiment expressed on social media about the Dick’s decision was positive, according to data analysis firm Sprout Social.

What are the risks associated with taking a stand?

  • What can go wrong when taking a stand related to a social issue? Plenty. But some risks are worth taking, especially if there is a greater upside to taking action and the organization has the opportunity to map out a plan to address them.
  • Two major risks? Becoming a target of the opposition, which can lead to losing business, and being called out as a hypocrite.
  • Audi learned this lesson the hard way. During Super Bowl 2017, the automaker launched an ad promoting equal pay for women. Soon after the automaker faced criticism for how few women actually work at Audi, especially at the executive level.

Moral of the story? A repeatable method for evaluating social issues is critical to ensure that brands have authenticity when they step forward to advocate for change. The criteria may change from organization to organization, but it’s the process itself that matters.

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