Image for Communicating Social Purpose in a Swirl of Polarization

If there was any doubt, the State of the Union address Tuesday night, February 4, provided a poster of the nation’s deep polarization. Regrettable as that may be, issue managers will have to navigate those swirling waters to communicate their message throughout 2020 – and perhaps beyond.

The key point to keep in mind is that polarization won’t override other communication trends. Polarization will just be the lightning storm in the background.

“Vitriol and negativity continue to impede constructive, positive discourse during the 2020 election season,” says Valerie Di Maria of the10company, which specializes in corporate reputation PR. “Communicators can help their organizations take the high road and stand for issues backed by reason and, yes, social purpose and action.”

In a blog post, Di Maria argues “social good drives business and attracts employees.” The trick is finding a way to make communications about social good appealing as opposed to off-putting. Organizations don’t really have a choice but to try, she says, because “eight out of 10 consumers say they want their brands to have a social purpose, with Millennials expecting it as a point of entry before they even consider a brand. “

Issue managers can’t hide behind the excuse they aren’t brand managers. Communicating about complex, often controversial issues carries an even greater responsibility to address social purpose. Large projects, big policy shifts and organization missteps typically center on social purpose.

Social purpose requires more authenticity than many corporate social responsibility programs. For example, the issue of digital equity has arisen in debates over applying new technologies such as biometrics. Consumer justice, equal pay and data privacy permeate serious conversations about the economy, workplace, healthcare and public spaces.

Positions on high-stakes issues such as this can be controversial and clash with the accepted views or prejudices of different thought bubbles. But if you can’t avoid the topics, the alternative is to find ways to stake out credible, believable positions that earn grudging respect. And once you enter the fray, be open to listening to other points of view while sticking to your guns if you believe you are on the right side of an issue.

The reality of polarization is that arguments once only made in the shadows are now voiced in the full light of day. The name-calling and insults blur the existence of a deeply rooted conversation, if not existential struggle, for a political direction and a moral perspective. People may say they are turned off by the polarization and its ugliness, but people are paying attention to environmental, social and governance issues with a keener eye than before.

The challenge, then, is how to posit and defend a social purpose in this charged environment. Di Maria offers one nugget of advice that coincides with advice we’ve offered before: Embrace a “strategic, less-is-more” approach by saying what you mean and keeping it short and to the point. Don’t forget to focus on what it means for those it impacts, whether consumers, stakeholders, employees or communities.

Complex issues demand inclusion of important details. Instead of trying to cram those details into key messages, create communication tools with layers of detail. Make it easy for those people who want to wade deeply into an issue to find what they are looking for without forcing everyone to take the same journey. Websites devoted to a specific issue offer a perfect platform for well-packaged, layered information streams.

Di Maria points out that communicating in the maelstrom of polarization also is an exercise in communicating as new data privacy rules go into effect, which can complicate the process. Whatever restraints or inconveniences there are, accept them as a new reality, especially if your communication is driven by data analysis.

One more wrinkle Di Maria mentions is the growing role of kid activism. Media-savvy and socially conscious young people are taking stands and gaining visibility on issues in marches, protests and lawsuits. They are and likely will remain magnets for media coverage, so merit consideration when deciding how to pursue communications about your social purpose.

Unconscious bias or lack of diversity also can marginalize your message for a large and growing chunk of an American public audience, unwittingly lighting the fires of polarization under your message. Social media and heightened sensitivities have expanded who sees and intensified what is perceived in communications. You can credit polarization for that, too.

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm’s PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.