woman holding protest sign

The Future of Communications in a Divided Nation

WE Communications Blog: CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin

7/24/2018
— Melissa Waggener Zorkin 

Last month, as public outrage over the White House’s policy of separating Central American families seeking asylum in the U.S. reached a fever pitch, major airlines decided to do something about it. American, United, Delta, Frontier and Southwest asked the federal government to stop using their planes for, as American put it, “transporting children who have been separated from their families due to the current immigration policy.”

They framed this request in moral terms — Delta said the family separations at the border “do not align with Delta’s core values,” and American wrote that “the family separation process that has been widely publicized is not at all aligned with the values of American Airlines — we bring families together, not apart” — but they spoke up for practical reasons, too. By using commercial airplanes to carry out its family-separation policy, the federal government had effectively made the companies its partners, complicit in a political project that’s enormously unpopular with customers (and potential customers) and employees alike. 

For this reason, I think, the airlines faced little public backlash over their announcements. However, brand activism doesn’t always go so well. The BBC recently reported that Wal-Mart pulled t-shirts calling for the impeachment of President Trump from its online marketplace in response to boycott threats. (Meanwhile, the store still sells MAGA hats and other pro-Trump merchandise.)

I’ve written before about brands taking a political stand, and about the need for communicators to be a conscience check on company and leadership decisions. When we look toward the future of communications, we know the ability and willingness to take a stand on politicized issues is very important. But if you’re a brand, how do you do this right? How do you make sure you’re going to be an American Airlines and not a Wal-Mart?

The task is twofold: first, to understand your brand’s values and your audience’s values, and second, to identify where they do — and don’t — intersect.

Values create stability in an unstable world

We know from our Brands in Motion research that consumers crave stability and that they think brands can provide it — 81 percent of American consumers surveyed said that brands have the capability to provide stability in an uncertain climate, and 52 percent said that brands should take a stand on important issues.

But how to take a stand when it could mean alienating parts of your audience, or even sparking a public backlash?

As everyone who’s been following the Cambridge Analytica scandal knows, marketers and communicators often rely on psychographic targeting — profiles of internet users mined from their browsing history — offered by platforms like Google or Facebook. But values, too, can be analyzed in a similar way, and they can provide insights that demographics and psychographics cannot.

A key point is that values don’t always break evenly along political party lines. Liberal consumers prize values like equality and sustainability, and conservative consumers prize belief and patriotism, but there are values both liberals and conservatives celebrate equally, like authenticity, conscience and wisdom. By examining your brand’s audience’s values and finding these places of overlap, you can make sure your political message is landing right.

The dangers (and necessity) of taking a stand

In the airlines’ case, brands didn’t face a choice between doing what aligned with their values and doing what would resonate with consumers. The separation of migrant families at the border was a policy that was widely shouted down by the American public, and the airlines’ stance was rooted in their values of family and conscience — values shared across the political spectrum.

That’s not always the case, however. After a Starbucks employee in Philadelphia called the police on two young black men for sitting in a store without buying anything, the company responded quickly and strongly, in the end closing 8,000 locations to train about 175,000 employees in racial sensitivity. Reaction from media and customers was a bit mixed. Was it enough? Was it pointless? In the end, in the short term at least, the company took a financial hit for standing up and doing what it saw as the right thing.

And you know what? That’s not the end of the world. In the future of communications, leading with bold purpose means taking chances like this. It’s not always easy to stay true to your brand’s values — and, in fact, leading from our values sometimes carries a cost. Especially in a nation as divided as ours, wading into politics will always involve risk. But if we can communicate our values clearly and authentically, and connect our values to those our customers share — no matter what lever they pull in November — I think we’ll find it’s worth it.