Three Questions To Ask Before Entering Conversation Around Social Issues

From Beth Rolfs, Chief Data Officer, Grey NY

When big social issues arise, I often hear both my colleagues and my clients ask the same thing: “What should we be doing or saying about this issue?” Excellent question. Advertising makes up approximately 27% of every hour of traditional television in the United States and the general person in the US is exposed to somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements a day. So, one might say that with advertisements and therefore brands making up so much of the messaging that we experience every day, brands should take a stand and participate in cultural conversations.

However, the advice that I would give to brands about commenting or supporting certain social issues is to ask these three overarching questions, in order, before deciding to participate in the conversation:

1. What is your company or brand doing internally to ensure that you are in a position where you have the right to participate in the conversation? What actions has your brand or company taken in the past that are either in support of or against this social issue? Has your parent company, company or brand donated to individuals that are for or against this social issue in the past? What has your company or brand done historically to support the individuals or communities that are impacted or part of the social issue?

If any of these answers do not align with the side of the social issue that your brand is looking to comment on or participate in, then the ideal first action would be for a brand to begin internally and start making changes that reflect their current values. While these changes might not be directly seen as part of their marketing efforts, they are pivotal to honest and meaningful communication both internally and externally.

If your brand is internally aligned with the social issue you would like to participate in or comment on, next ask yourself:

2. Why? Why would your brand participate in the conversation?

If the answer to this is ever about increasing profits, I would recommend not commenting or participating in the conversation.

3. Is there a meaningful action that can be made to support the social issue beyond just messaging?

We all know that actions speak louder than words and if your brand can participate in creating or amplifying a solution to the issue or making a meaningful impact for/in the affected community, any messaging around the social issue will hold more credibility.

Taking the time to work through the above questions not only ensures that the brand has the right and credibility to authentically participate or comment on a social issue, it also allows teams to come to a collective and unified understanding of the intent of the brand’s communication.

Brands hold the power to make a very real and lasting impact on culture (don’t believe me, look at how many people buy diamond engagement rings—we owe that to De Beers and advertising) and with this power comes an elevated level of cultural responsibility. While sometimes the responsible thing to do is to use that power to make a statement or take a stand, other times, the responsible thing is to not detract from or take space from other the people, companies or brands that have an established and vested support in the issue at hand.