EDITORIAL: How To Resist Social Activism In Your Business And Avoid Offending Customers

June 3, 2023


BRITISH COLUMBIA – If a business owner makes their own choice to make a social issue part of their company’s mandate, that is completely their right.

They will reap the benefits or experience the damage.

If a business owner is pushed or coerced into becoming a lightning rod for someone else’s cause, then they shouldn’t be surprised if there are consequences. Ignorance and naivety are no excuse in the world of commerce.

There’s a price to pay for everything.

Without getting into the well-rehearsed details of the current Bud Light marketing controversy, suffice it to be enough that the Beer Business Daily website states that in-store sales of the beer dropped 26 per cent in the week of April 22. For the week ending April 29, Fox News quoted the website reported: “. . .Bud Light was down 21.4 per cent, while Coors Light was up 10.9 per cent and Miller Lite up 12.8 per cent.”

At this juncture, it doesn’t appear there is an end in sight for Bud Light owner Anheuser-Busch InBev, whose stock price has been pummeled. All because the company green- lighted a marketing initiative that some pundits say could be the biggest marketing blunder since the ill-fated introduction of New Coke in 1985. Maybe that’s fine with the company and its shareholders, although it appears they have been completely surprised about the backlash.

But they shouldn’t have been. There are enough examples already of social activism creating chaos in the boardroom and marketplace that companies should have their antennae up and decide: Are they in business to make money by selling products or services, or spread messages? Shouldn’t the latter be done on non-company time by employees?

Using one’s public platform to address social issues is championed by activists, who have become very clever in drawing celebrities in as human shields for their cause.

Activists have become adept at recruiting unwitting spokespeople through intimidation and threats to their businesses if they don’t rally behind their specific cause. Boycott bullying has also proven to be effective, as businesses are quick to cave into any pressure that may cost them clients. So are massive guilt trips, which suggest that luminaries that don’t use their platforms to “do some good” will somehow tarnish their legacy.

When such “opportunities” are presented, businesses and individuals should ask questions like: What is in this for me? Who is going to pick me up and pay the bills if this cause fails? Who is going to eat the losses that may result for standing up for the cause? What happens if customers walk away from the business because they’re offended by what we support?

Athletes are often willing participants, and it seems that in many cases now, if they don’t participate in raising an issue or choosing a political side, they get run over. National Basketball Association star Michael Jordan was famously lampooned because he wouldn’t publicly support black Democratic candidates. His answer, that “Republicans buy shoes, too,” wasn’t good enough for some. Jordan got it, like he most often does.

People can get politics 24 hours a day on news talk radio and television. They don’t watch sports to get athlete’s opinion on social matters or who to vote for. Sports is popular largely because it is apolitical, and an escape from the rest of the world for the 2-3 hours it takes to watch a game. Because of that, we can sit side by side with people of all different backgrounds and enjoy something with them, without getting into deeply divisive issues which would normally place one on the other side of the stadium.

Renowned coach Phil Jackson, an 11-time champion, recently explained why he hasn’t watched many since he retired from coaching in 2011, that he felt the league was catering to a certain audience which turned off fans who wanted politics out of sports.

When National Hockey League players tried to bow out of recent message-sending uniform events, the media pounded them with piledrivers. So much for standing up or sitting for what they believed in – if it’s against what the media says, prepare to pay the consequences.

Congratulations to former NHL defenseman P.K. Subban, who was quoted in a Reuters article stating “We cannot push everyone to be an activist, we need to be very careful.”

The same goes for companies.

So how can one avoid the trap of becoming an “unknowing activist”?

First, acknowledge the possibility of the issue becoming helpful or hurtful to the company. Is it really worth it?

If it is not, then don’t get involved. Just say no to everything that could be a distraction from the goals and visions of the firm.

When we started our business in 2004, we were approached by a non-profit organization to see if we would run free ads for their cause. We said no. They were surprised at the response and pushed back, but we reasoned if we opened that door, we wouldn’t be able to say no to anyone else. Once one not-for-profit organization realizes another has gained something, they follow along with their own request, and if we were to refuse some other cause, it would look like we’ve chosen sides. So we didn’t do it for anyone.

By keeping it as simple as that, it’s a subtle but powerful message that the business is open to everyone. Controversies can be avoided and the risk of alienating customers is eliminated.

Say no to all of it and stick to your business. If you don’t, be prepared to walk alone in case of backlash. And if it does, don’t be surprised when the activist recruiters that used you are nowhere to be found to fix any damage to your business.

Mark MacDonald is President of Communication Ink Media & Public Relations Ltd. and Author of the book “It Worked For Them, It Will Work For Me: The 8 Secrets of Small Business I Learned From Successful Friends”, which can be obtained by reaching him through: mark@communicationink.ca


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