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It’s Controversial: 8 Steps for Fearless Companies Taking A Stand on Issues That Matter

Recently, one of our clients decided not to share a very “political” article on social media.

The article took a stance advocating for less reductive language surrounding political views and suggested that alternative terms might frame a more nuanced and fruitful discussion around conflict resolution.

I was surprised that the client didn’t want to share a perspective that fully aligned with their mission, but their fear of eliciting negative responses or offensive feedback won out. Among other concerns, the question of whether to delete offensive comments would raise the issue of censorship, which gets really sticky really fast.

I get it and I respect their decision, but I still don’t think purposeful organizations should let fear of feedback stop them from saying what their mission dictates should be said.

Have you ever shied away from sharing something too controversial, even when it is aligned with your company’s values?

It can be scary to take a stand, but with proper planning, you don’t need to be afraid to share even blatantly political stances related to your Purpose. It’s the right thing to do and, when done thoughtfully, it can open up a valuable dialogue that increases employee morale and strengthens consumer trust.

Read on for eight steps to help you set up systems that will mitigate risk and free you from the fetters of worry so your company can speak boldly in support of its Purpose (Click to Tweet!).

Good intentions alone don’t create change.
Get Purpose Driven: How to Take Your Company from Intent to Impact.

Step 1: Get buy-in

Talk to whoever is in charge of communications about the issues, current events and political goings-on relevant to your company’s Purpose. Communicate why you think it’s important to take a stand, comment on or support an individual or organization for each of the topics you identify. Remind the decision-maker that speaking out is an important part of authentically serving your Purpose and values.

Step 2: Get clarification

For topics that get the go-ahead, clarify your company’s official stance. Get a few examples of statements that are OK and those that won’t fly. If an official stance doesn’t exist, you’ll need to discuss the issue to form the stance. This could be a great opportunity to deepen internal brand alignment with your team.

For the topics that are approved, do your research before you communicate or comment on anything and check your facts a few times over. Look out for potentially charged language and make sure you understand relevant terms before using them.

Those with opposing views will be only too happy to pick apart your statements and highlight mistakes, inaccuracies or unintentional connotations. Explore alternate views and research what those with differing opinions might say. Get clarification on what form responses should take.

Step 3: Consider your customers

While it’s never the reason to take a stand, speaking out offers an opportunity to reinforce your Purpose with existing customers and introduce your Purposeful brand to new people. Plus, consumers are more likely to buy from companies that share their views.

How you communicate your view can bring customers closer to – or alienate them from – your brand, so discuss how the issue might matter to them and communicate accordingly. If your stance will impact how you serve your customers or what you provide to them, have a plan for how you’ll overcome any resulting inconvenience or frustration. If your stance lends itself to customer involvement, offer actionable and specific ways for them to join you as partners in Purpose.

Step 4: Clue in your crew

Your team should be the best ambassadors for your brand, engaging customers and others in your Purpose. Don’t keep them in the dark.

Make sure that everyone within your company (especially customer-facing employees) and those who are likely to speak for you (partners, vendors, funders, etc.) understand your stance. Consider holding a meeting to share the stance and respond to any questions or concerns. Follow up by sending out talking points so everyone is well equipped to respond to questions and comments.

If a customer asks about the stance and your team members are ill prepared to respond or, worse yet, aren’t even aware the stance exists, it erodes brand trust and employee morale. It also puts the company at risk because, fumbling for an answer, the person could say something poorly aligned with the official viewpoint and reasoning.

Step 5: Decide how you’ll engage

If your stance causes a lot of buzz, you might not have the bandwidth to engage in every conversation about it. You need to decide from the start how much time you’re going to invest in conversations that ensue. Some could be really positive (yay brand exposure!) and some could be quite negative.

Whether, how much and how you respond to and engage with feedback, whether online or offline, communicates something about your brand. If your capacity for engagement or response is limited, you’ll need to strategically decide how you engage, with whom and through which forums.

If you have a strong community of loyal customers, you may be pleasantly surprised at how they engage in conversations about your stance. And if you’ve been developing transformative customer relationships, you may consider calling on your brand advocates to engage where you can’t. [Don’t have either? Contact us for help!]

Step 6: Draw your lines in the sand

If you’re sharing or commenting on something potentially inflammatory online, you have to assume it will get inflamed. It’s like the Murphy’s Law of content. If that really ugly, unintellectual and counterproductive statement ends up posted on a forum you control like your company’s blog or Facebook page, you will probably want to delete it.

Decide what the criteria are for nixing a comment. Explain explicitly what is deemed unacceptable and what will happen to content that violates the rules. Here are a few points to get you started:

  • Discussion is encouraged but empty comments that use hateful or foul language to defame others based on their ethnicity, race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation or other components of identity will not be tolerated
  • Comments in violation will be deleted; posters will be notified and encouraged to share their convictions in less offensive ways
  • Upon a third violation (or fewer if you like), the transgressing user will be banned from the page/ group

If you have other rules or different rules, that’s great. Please share them in the comments to help out your fellow fearless communicators. Just remember that deleting a comment only because it’s critical of your stance or company shouldn’t be one of them!

Post the rules where users can see them. That way, if you delete something and the poster is enraged, you can note that content was in violation of Rule # X which they accepted implicitly in joining the conversation it governs, yadda yadda yadda.

Remember that the rules you lay out apply to those who share your official stance as well as those who oppose it. If someone “on your side” makes a hateful remark or lobs out personally disparaging remarks, you have to follow the same course of action. It’s crucial for creating a fruitful dialogue where all contributors feel safe and respected.

Step 7: Engage

Start by thanking those who respond for sharing their views, even if they’re in opposition to yours. The time they took to share their thoughts with you warrants gratitude.

Raise any objections or counterpoints respectfully, preferably in the form of a question to encourage dialogue and understanding. For instance, “Do you think X still makes sense given the existence of Y?” or “While your point about X certainly rings true, it seems as though Z complicates the matter. What do you think?

By listening and engaging in the conversation, you gain an opportunity to deepen your connections within your community, connect with new people and understand their opinion and views.

Step 8: Listen and Learn

Throughout the process, listen to those who engage with you and try to learn from them. Learn from their views and how they engaged. Learn what you might expect when taking a stance in the future. Consider the process and identify what worked and what didn’t. What would you have done differently?

The steps above are certainly a lot to consider, so feel free to tweak and adjust them to better fit your unique culture, structure and brand. You can absolutely expect some bumps along the way but with time, you’ll gain more and more confidence addressing controversial topics.

Speaking out on hot-button issues that align with your company’s Purpose isn’t only important for creating meaningful change and living out your brand’s convictions – it’s a powerful way to leverage existing conversations and connect with people who share your values. Those are the people perfectly primed to become not only customers but partners in Purpose and brand advocates.

It was the great Martin Luther King, Jr. who said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Where will you stand next time things get heated? If you have other tips for those ready to speak out, please share them in the comments below.

For more resources on social impact Purpose, check out our Purpose Discovery Roadmap.

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Alison was RoundPeg's content marketing specialist though November 2016. We are sure she still spends her days seeking inspiration, writing inspired content, then trying to inspire other people to read it! When she isn't trying to save the world by the might of her pen, she hangs out with her dog Wall-E, reads contemporary literature and eats an impressive amount of chocolate.

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