At last week’s Gartner Marketing Symposium / Xpo, I was lucky enough to facilitate a global roundtable with about 40 senior marketing and communications leaders to discuss which crises they should be preparing for. I had prepared to facilitate a discussion about emerging risks like deepfake attacks and cyber-activism, but I was surprised that the majority of attendees were more concerned about something very different.
The key question on their minds was how they should decide when it is appropriate for their brands to engage in societal issues.
While nearly half (48%) of consumers surveyed recently said brands must address social issues regardless of the impact on profits, over half (52%) also said they will engage in opposition to a brand that they perceive as exploiting public sentiment or caving to employee pressure. One thing is clear – leaders are feeling the pressure to get the decision of whether to engage in societal issues or not right.
I’ve found that the leaders who are the most confident in this space have established a consistent methodology that enables them to make well-informed, fast decisions when needed. Although there is a continuum of possible approaches, there are 3 main types of criteria that could work for you:
- Rules-based Criteria
- Principle-based Criteria
- Guidelines-based Criteria
As the name suggests, this approach relies on explicit rules to determine when the organization will or won’t engage on any given societal issue. This can take the form of a decision tree, or can be even more prescriptive in the form of a policy book. Advantages include the ability to stamp out uncertainty, but it requires a lot of up-front work to account for all the possible types of situations that could arise in the future.
One example of a brand adopting this approach is AARP, who wrote a comprehensive 12-chapter policy book that explicitly outlines the organization’s positions on the issues with which it will engage. The policies cover everything from immigration to healthcare and are published online to ensure all stakeholders know where AARP stands on an issue, creating clarity both internally and externally on AARP’s positions and priorities.
At the other end of the spectrum are principle-based criteria. These are the least prescriptive and heavily reliant on judgment. They are based on a set of codified high-level beliefs, often taking the form of values statements or a series of questions that prompt consideration of when and how the organization may engage with a societal issue.
Principle-based approaches are typically best for brands that prefer more flexibility, handle societal issues less frequently, and have a strong, widely held sense of what their principles look like in action. However, decisions have the potential to be time-consuming, given the emphasis on individual judgment by a decision maker than has been granted final authority, like the CEO. This approach also carries the risk of decision making becoming inconsistent, inefficient. The use of overly vague principles can also result in the organization defaulting to a “no involvement” stance each time.
Intuit is an example of a company that has defined the high-level principles that govern if and how they will engage with a societal issue. Leaders use the principles to inform recommendations for the CEO, who holds final decision making authority.
The goldilocks in the spectrum of criterion types (and my personal favorite) is framework-based criteria. These are less prescriptive than a rule-based approach, but do provide structured guidelines that make the application of judgement easier. I’ve seen decision matrices and impact assessment spreadsheets used most commonly when applying framework-based criteria.
Using a framework helps the decision maker identify and weigh up competing considerations that improve the quality and consistency of decisions. The use of a framework also helps capture the decision-making process, which is helpful for organizations that value transparency. However, framework-based approaches are only as good as the inputs they rely on, so it can be helpful to establish a group of experts from throughout the organization to contribute their individual expertise to the decision process.
Southwest Airlines developed a framework to inform decisions about engagement on societal issues. The framework consists of a series of categorized questions that helps surface environmental considerations (e.g., source of pressure, timing) and impact of their involvement on key audiences (e.g., business impact, employee impact, customer reaction). Decision makers — a committee of individuals from throughout the organization — then estimate the impact from high to low and positive to negative, producing a visualization that makes decision making easier.
While there are benefits and drawbacks for each approach, the right decision will depend on what best suits your organizational context and culture. Do you need to create criteria to help your organization decide if or how to engage in a societal issues? Please share your thoughts or get in touch. We’d love to share more detail on how other organizations are approaching these challenges and help you solve yours.
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1 Gartner’s 2020 Consumer Brand and Sentiment Survey: This survey was fielded in December 2020 among 2,448 U.S. consumers age 18 and over. The sample was balanced by age, gender, employment status, ethnicity and region to represent the general U.S. population.
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