Thoughts and Thought Leadership

Stand up or stand down? When to act on social issues.

by | Jun 30, 2022

As news of an overturned Roe v. Wade swept across our feeds last week, brands and the people that represent them were once again confronted with the dreadful question: To speak or not to speak?

Well, the data tells us brands can’t do nothing:

  • 76% of Millennials and 83% of Gen Zers feel brands should take a stance on social issues, vs. 59% of consumers ages 41+. (Merkle Survey of 1,000 U.S. Consumers, 2022)
  • 60% of global adults when evaluating a job say they expect CEOs to speak out publicly about controversial social & political issues that they care about. (2022 Edelman Trust Barometer)

So why is speaking out still such a fraught decision? Some might say it’s not wise to get involved in controversial conversations. And that may be true. But controversy is not the issue…after all, you can only avoid controversy for so long. Successful businesses are very good at knowing who they are and who they aren’t, and that inevitably means not pleasing everyone. Sometimes controversy leads to innovation, disruption, and brand engagement. Sometimes, it means turning clients or customers away. But as brand leaders Nike, Ben & Jerry’s, and Apple know, you’ll likely attract more brand advocates than you lose, as long as your actions are authentic to your brand. So I guess the takeaway of this article is (spoiler alert), when it comes to brands and social issues, don’t fear controversy, fear inauthenticity.

Let’s talk about purpose-washing. You’ve heard the term. It’s the business equivalent of a fairweather fan or empty promise. I would argue it’s worse to purpose-wash than be purpose-less (and as a brand strategist, that’s saying a lot), but we still see it every day. And as Gen Z says, “if you see something, say something.” 90% of Gen Zers research companies to determine whether they are genuine in messaging and actions, and are quick to expose purpose-washing on social media. (Gen Z Expert, Professor Mark Beal). So how do you avoid this pitfall? 

Here are some rules to live by when speaking on social issues. 

  1. The statement or action has to align with company values, beliefs, and past actions. If your stance contradicts who you are as a brand, what benefits you offer your employees, or what your people believe, it won’t be credible.
  2. Your employees should be your first (and most important) audience. Your position should be clearly communicated at every level of the organization. And employees should be given an opportunity to respond, react and help influence the company’s response. If you aren’t ready to talk to your own people about it, you shouldn’t be talking to the world about it either.
  3. You should always gut-check outside the organization, and with experts if possible. What advice and deeper understanding of the issue can you gain from activists, leaders, supporting organizations, or even legal counsel?
  4. You have to be willing to commit to the stance and any intended actions long after the news cycle has ended. Even if it means facing legal risk or backlash from clients, customers, employees, or partners. 
  5. You should be able to articulate how your statement or action is going to have a positive impact on the cause or movement. Otherwise, you’re just speaking to get credit for it or adding to the noise. You might even consider partnering with someone who can amplify your efforts.

Essentially, don’t say anything you can’t back up, no matter how much it’s trending. 

Let’s take Roe v. Wade as an example. Many companies in restricted states are reacting by announcing paid travel to employees for abortions. That is wonderful, provided they follow the rules above:

  1. Have a track record of supporting women and reproductive rights. What do healthcare and leave benefits look like? How has leadership spoken and voted in response to similar issues in the past?
  2. Understand how employees feel about it. Would they actually take advantage of this benefit? Would their privacy be upheld if they did? Will they support this stance with their own words and actions when representing the company?
  3. Have talked to lawyers, benefits providers, and pro-choice activists to understand what steps are necessary to actually follow through with their promise.
  4. Have discussed the potential legal or business ramifications with all key stakeholders and received a commitment from the top down.
  5. Have weighed the benefit of offering paid travel against other options, and feel this will provide the greatest impact on their people and the cause.

If these criteria are not met, there are still many ways organizations can help, without jumping on the paid travel bandwagon. They can contribute to out-of-state clinics to offset capacity and funding issues, donate to established support organizations, expand medical benefits to employees, provide PTO for reproductive care and mental health support, and create safe spaces for affected employees. These silent actions can speak volumes when done thoughtfully and with pure intentions. No social media blitz is required.

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