Conventional wisdom used to be that businesses should stay out of politics. Times have changed and consumer demand is forcing many CBD industry businesses to ask “how can my business talk about political issues?”
We’ll walk through the M&C CBD Brand Protection PR™ approach of building a meaningfully aligned strategy to take a political, social, or environmental stand with your business.
Why businesses should stay out of politics. Or Not.
In the “old days” the conventional wisdom was that businesses should stay out of politics. Companies weren’t expected to take a stand on a particular issue or candidate. The Harvard Business Review points out that: “The change started with the corporate social responsibility movement of the 1980s, when more companies began considering the impact their practices had on society and the environment. There was advocacy, but it was about products and processes, not politics. No one could take umbrage at a company that produced hormone- or BPA-free products or whose supply chain banned firms that employed abusive labor procedures. These were rooted in ethics as opposed to political ideologies.”
But times have changed, and creating loyal customers means building a relationship with them, caring about what they care about. One article in the Kellog Insight report does a great job of illustrating this change: “We live in an era of unprecedented lifestyle marketing, where companies are able to bring an enormous amount of data to bear on personalized customer service that endears us to their brands. But with every Instagram follow and deep emotional appeal, companies are courting both the positive and problematic aspects of strong brand identification.”
Let’s haul out some evidence here: a Sprout Social study conducted in 2019 shows that 56% of consumers say it’s important for CEOs to take a stand on public issues. A similar question from the 2021 Edelman Trust Survey says 86% of people surveyed say they EXPECT CEOs to speak out on “societal issues and local community issues.” That’s a pretty clear mandate and it’s increased notably in the last several years.
Of course, where the rubber meets the road is where it gets messy. Let’s look at some examples of corporate advocacy, the good, the bad, and the ugly. First a couple of good examples, and we should point out here, I mean “good” in terms of being part of a strategically aligned public relations plan, not “right” or “wrong” political positions:
Outdoor company Patagonia gets involved in campaigning for protecting public lands and donating to climate action causes, getting especially involved after the president at the time made a move to shrink the size of a national monument in Utah. Here’s why this works: Patagonia had a long record of supporting public lands alongside its employees and consumers. Corporate action aligned with the values of the company and its stakeholders.
Another good example: a small town in South Carolina was hosting a drive-through Covid vaccination clinic and traffic to the clinic backed up for hours. The mayor reached out to a drive-through expert: the manager of the local Chick-fil-a fast food restaurant. The manager took a look and helped the city coordinate multiple lanes to check drivers in, helping to eliminate the backlog and get hundreds of people vaccinated in their cars as quickly as possible. Again, this aligns well with the established Chick-fil-a values of community engagement and support.
But how about some examples of political messaging that didn’t go well. And quite frankly, not much needs to be said about what went wrong here:
The CEO of My Pillow has lost a lot of business and been kicked off social media platforms for his vociferous involvement in the 2020 election dispute.
Pepsi was forced to take down its tone-deaf (and very expensive) Kylie Jenner ad that used and effectively trivialized Black Lives Matter imagery to sell soda. This damage was significant: Millennial willingness to buy a Pepsi sunk to its lowest level in eight years.
The list could go on and on, but suffice it to say: politics are a hot-button issue that should be handled with care.
How can my business contribute positively to the discussion about political, environmental, and social issues?
Every PR plan M&C creates for clients begins with research. Let’s talk about some of the tools we use, why we use them, and what information we get from doing this research. If taking a political stance is important to you, it makes sense to start with your mission. Take a look at your company’s mission and vision statement. If you don’t have one, this is a good place to start.
Define what drives you as a CBD business owner. A wonderful example of this is the way Bluebird Botanicals has an extensive and well-researched blog post on their website that details how racism has impacted cannabis cultivation, particularly the inequality in law enforcement and the disproportionate arrests and incarceration of People of Color for cannabis-related offenses that are no longer prosecuted. The post concludes with links to several social justice projects that aim to reform drug laws and expunge sentences. This strategic alignment of Bluebird’s business mission with a clear stance to use their “platform against institutionalized racism and police brutality” and backed by concrete action to donate resources and support organizations dedicated to eradicating racism is a powerful example of aligning business mission, stakeholder expectations and meaningful action steps.
How do you know what political messaging resonates with your audience? Time to do a little digging: start with audience research to understand who they are, what their interests are, and what topics resonate with them. Get into the demographics of your followers on your social channels. You can do this in each social channel and there’s generally more information available on business accounts. Another great tool we use all the time is Sprout Social. It digs deep into your followers and gives you demographic data that can help you understand exactly who’s following you on which channel. Use this information to think critically about what political message might align with your brand AND resonate with your followers. We also use a digital tool called Sparktoro to help uncover audience insights based on keyword searches, like what news sources people consume, podcasts they listen to, and hashtags they use in their social media posts. It helps complete a picture of who you’re talking to on social media and what that audience cares about.
Do a little hashtag research: search the hashtags you use on social media and see what others are posting. We use another powerful tool called Meltwater that can help spot trends and track how a message is resonating across the entire digital landscape, from traditional media to social media, blogs, and more. This is where we noticed a significant overlap between posts about CBD and posts about justice for people convicted of cannabis-related crimes that are no longer prosecuted. This is likely due to the work Last Prisoner Project and others are doing. Now you’ve got a clearer picture of the topics of concern to your customers and others in your industry with just a little bit of research into social media.
Last but not least, it’s time for a bit of stakeholder research. Notice I use the term “stakeholder” and not just customer. There are many stakeholders in every CBD business. Start with your employees: what do they care about? Ask them what topics are important to them. What charitable organizations would they like to support? This is an important component of building employee retention and loyalty as well as support for any political or charitable project you might take on. Ask your customers the same questions and keep it open-ended: “We are thinking about issue XYZ and we’d like to know what you think?” Use your social channels to ask your followers. Listen carefully to the answers and think through how this information might play out.
How to align your business goals with your political messaging
OK, by now you should see where we’re headed. All this work, research, and conversations should lead you to a clearer picture of how your company can authentically align its business goals with a political, social, or environmental message. At M&C, we’re fans of the term “authentic action.” It’s another way of saying you’re going to walk the talk as a business. Consumers, employees, and other stakeholders will sniff out inauthentic political posturing immediately. But if you’ve done the work to align your business goals to a political message and you back it up with honest, transparent, authentic ACTION, you’re doing it right. You’ll be laying the building blocks of powerful CBD Brand Protection PR™ that can help insulate and protect your brand while adding positively to the civic discourse.
Here’s the video recap from today’s episode: