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The time has passed when brands could look away from culture war battles. Consumers and workers are demanding cultural relevance from brands they buy or work for, so corporate executives need to suit up for marketplace battles that will earn them hugs or hisses.

Cultural Relevance is Becoming a Commercial Necessity

Brands are increasingly being tugged into culture wars as consumers demand they take a stand on contentious issues. Brands that don’t take a stand can feel the repercussions in negative consumer reviews or even a drop-off in sales. Brands that do take a stand can find themselves in the crosshairs of “anti-woke” politicians.

There is no clearer example of the challenge facing brands than the intersection of Disney World, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation and Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. After Florida’s legislature passed the controversial legislation, Disney CEO Bob Chapek tried to stay on the sidelines. That proved untenable in the face of pressure from Disney employees, fans and LGBTQ advocates. When Chapek relented and expressed public opposition to the legislation, DeSantis punished Disney World by terminating its special status to plan and build buildings without local government approval.

If this could happen to Disney World, Florida’s largest employer and the dream destination for millions of people, what can lesser brands expect? There is no simple answer. Waffling isn’t an option. The best advice for corporations is to take a deep look at their own identity and their own values. Conflict isn’t pretty but trying to dodge it is dangerous.

Losing the ability to add a new ride when it wants won’t convince Disney to pull up stakes in Orlando. DeSantis will continue to audition for a GOP presidential run on the spear of culture issues. Surveys show people who go to Disney World largely don’t care. For those who do care, the episode is revealing.

Major brands throughout the country are facing the inescapable challenge of how to respond to a growing number of state abortion bans. Many corporations, including most recently Wal-Mart, are offering to pay the expenses of women who must go to another state for an abortion. The decision risks the ire of anti-abortion advocates and politicians while appeasing the demands of workers who have health insurance that includes reproductive services.

Communicators must strive for balance to leave no doubt where a brand stands without sacrificing the role of telling the brand’s story.

Some brands, such as Chick-fil-A, become embroiled in controversies because of views held by company presidents. Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy’s donations to anti-LGBTQ groups sparked a brouhaha that strengthened the loyalty of some diners and put the fast-food chain on a “do not patronize” list for others.

There are many factors to weigh in deciding how to approach a controversial issue. A good place to start is to answer these questions: “What do we stand for? and “Why?” It’s also fair to ask what’s at risk by taking a stand and the time that can be consumed by engaging on an issue.

A tipping point for many brands is what employees or prospective employees think. A 2020 Harvard Business Review story cited research showing job applicants “seek workplaces where they can intertwine their beliefs with those of the company and work together on a common vision of purpose and success.”  A job market with lots of worker shortages may amplify the need for employers to talk about their core values. In a belief-driven workforce, employees will make decisions about staying or going based on more than salaries and benefits.

This workplace reality explains why more companies, including some with conservative leanings, are speaking out.

Speaking out extends beyond culture war issues to include responding to major events such as devastating natural disasters or medical emergencies that could suggest major donations or requirements to wear masks on the job, which could define brand beliefs.

In the age of instant news, corporate communicators could spend all their time responding to breaking events or rising controversies. Communicators must strive for balance to leave no doubt where a brand stands without sacrificing the role of telling the brand’s story.

Top executives cannot delegate responsibility to set brand beliefs. Taking a stand requires a unified corporate approach, from the corner office to the workplace floor. Achieving a unified approach depends on active listening, honest interchange and coordinated response. No one should be left to wonder what a stand entails or means on the ground.

The best advice for brands is to view social engagement as the new normal. That doesn’t mean engaging on every issue that arises. It does mean engaging on issues that bear on the core beliefs expressed and embodied by a brand. Being culturally relevant is critical to being commercially successful.

The Public Relations Society of America offers a range of views from PR professionals on brands speaking out on social issues. Here is a link to those views.