October 04, 2017



From left to right: Sarah Rabia (TBWA), Neda Azafar (The Recording Academy), Amy Emmer (Refinery 29), Dawn Laguens (Planned Parenthood) and Micahel Maslansky (maslansky + partners) 


Trust in everything from government institutions to journalism is at an all-time low, politics are present in all facets of modern life, and there’s a new controversy seemingly every day. In the past, corporations largely remained on the fence in the face of polarizing social issues. Today, however, the public is increasingly turning to and expecting brands to have a voice, speak up, and take action.


At an Advertising Week panel this week, m+p CEO Michael Maslansky led a panel on how brands should handle controversial issues. Panelists, including Dawn Laguens (EVP and Chief Experience Officer – Planned Parenthood Federation of America), Neda Azafar (VP, Marketing Communications – The Recording Academy), Amy Emmerich (Chief Content Officer – Refinery 29), and Sarah Rabia (Global Director of Cultural Strategy – TBWA), discussed why brands must be brave, how to take a stance, and the keys to mitigating associated risks.


There was immediate consensus amongst the panelists that speaking up as a corporation is a business need, because consumers are more and more making purchasing decisions based on whether or not they feel aligned with the brand’s values. “If a brand isn’t brave today, it risks being irrelevant,” said Sarah (TBWA). 


The question is, how should a company define its values, develop a voice, and decide when to take a stand? It’s easier for some than others.  The Recording Academy advocates for issues like music rights, which are aligned with its business. Planned Parenthood thinks about the causes that are relevant to its patients, such as difficulty getting to appointments and legal status. Thus, the organization stands for easier access to transportation and immigration reform efforts like DACA.


Taking a stand is more difficult when the company does not know what it believes in the first place. But a company defining its values is crucial to its brand – “If you don’t have it, consumers have it for you, because that’s how they experience and know you,” said Neda (The Recording Academy). The panelists suggested companies think about their leadership, employees, and customers, and figure out what matters to all groups.


Even when an issue is only peripherally related to the business, there are ways to organically partake in advocacy efforts. Refinery29, for example, often integrates controversial news into its relatable, largely first-person content. When an editor had an abortion, she wrote for Refinery29 about the experience, noting how someone who didn’t have insurance would not have been able to deal with the $40,000 bill she received.


There are business risks to being brave, but the panelists agreed that staying silent is the riskiest option of them all. Often, companies, especially those with a broad customer base) are concerned about alienating a part of their audience. Neda (The Recording Academy) said that if a company thinks critically about why it is taking a particular action on a particular issue, it is possible to take a stand without taking a side. She also stressed that having an opinion is not the same as being political.


Another risk to taking a stand is being perceived as inauthentic (at best) or opportunistic (at worst). Michael (m+p) said that besides organizations with a well-defined community, most industries like healthcare and finance face a lack of trust when they simply say they care about an issue. He referenced m+p research that suggests showing not telling, recognizing the fears of the audience, speaking in positing terms about your goals, and not overstating what you’re going to do are keys to handling social issues with authenticity.


The panelists agreed care and consistency are the keys to authentically and effectively taking a stand on sensitive social issues. A checklist for a campaign should include gaining a deep understanding of the issue, hiring people from the community and culture the campaign is trying to reach, and carrying the plan out for the long haul. What won’t be effective is a single rainbow-themed campaign.  


You can watch the full panel here


This recap was written by Account Coordinator Neha Ramani. 

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