Taking a stand: how do companies get it right?

New research from the Ipsos Global Reputation Centre asked business leaders, consumers, Members of Parliament, and journalists for their views on corporate activism – examining the potential risks and benefits of taking a corporate stance, how organisations can determine which issues they speak on, and how to communicate their views when they do.

Taking a stand: how do companies get it right?

Nowadays what your business stands for is as important as what it sells.

In a world that seems more connected, but more polarized, than ever, the pressure is growing on businesses to connect with people in ways beyond the purely commercial — with consumers, opinion formers, and employees wanting to know companies’ views on the issues that matter to them.

  • In Great Britain, our latest research found that 42% of consumers expect companies to take a stand on socio-political issues.
  • In our 2016 Ipsos Global Trends study (surveying more than 18,000 people across 23 countries) 63% of the public said they tend to buy brands that reflect their personal values – up from 54% in 2014. And in fast-growing economies such as India, China and Indonesia, the proportion was higher still.

Communications leaders recognise the shift: our new research amongst Ipsos's Reputation Council members – to be published in this autumn’s annual Reputation Council report – indicates that they believe that businesses do have a licence, or even an obligation, to speak out on the big socio-political and cultural issues of the day.

  • More than half of Reputation Council members (55%) say their consumers expect them to take a stand on socio-political issues, against a quarter (23%) who disagree.
  • At the same time, they recognise that the benefits and risks of speaking out are finely balanced – 61% of Reputation Council members agree that the benefits of taking a stand are greater than ever; but 77% thought that the same could be said of the risks.

That view is reinforced by other influential stakeholders, who generally support companies taking a stand – although some more so than others:

  • Our research on this issue amongst UK business journalists found that 72% think it is right that companies take a stand on issues.
  • Members of Parliament generally were more divided, with only 50% overall expressing support for corporate activism – but this revealed a clear division along party lines, with Labour MPs significantly more in favour than their Conservative counterparts.

It’s therefore important to understand your stakeholders’ expectations and views before you act.

And, it’s important to ensure your stance is relevant and authentic.

One of the risks cited in our research was that companies taking a stance could be viewed as opportunistic – something raised by 29% of consumers, and 32% of MPs and 33% business journalists.

But a stance which is aligned with a strong social purpose can bring benefits beyond the purely altruistic – creating a real connection with customers, helping to attract the best talent and leading to better engagement with influencers.

And, of course, it’s vital to practice what you preach: any stance will lack credibility if the business can’t show a track record of action.

It has to be relevant, it has to be in context and there have to be actions.

Reputation Council Member, 2017

How to decide when to take a public stand?

Decisions about when and how to take a particular stand are complex, but should be guided by the views, expectations and likely reactions of your stakeholders.

  1. How does it fit with your brand purpose and values?
    Is it an issue that ties in with your company purpose, and will it make sense to people if you speak out on these issues?
  2. Evaluate the credibility of your message
    What do stakeholders expect from you, and how can you best deliver?
  3. Consider whether your stand will be right in all of your markets, for all of your stakeholders
    Multi-national businesses need to think about cultural differences, and all businesses need to think about how things will land with the range of stakeholders that they have across the different facets of their business.
  4. Be prepared to be challenged.
    Ensure you understand expectations and assess the risks, and are equipped with evidence on the likely impact on key audiences.
  5. Consult across your business, from the shop floor to the CEO.
    Standing up on an issue is not an easy decision – so take your time, consult across the business and make sure it has support from the very top!

If your corporate stance genuinely reflects the social purpose and values of the business, and is backed up with evidence of action, the reward can be a powerful, positive impact on reputation and relationships.

To explore the findings of our corporate activism research in detail and assess how these can shape your organisation’s approach to ‘taking a stand’, please contact us.

Our upcoming 2017 Reputation Council Report, asks how communications leaders across the world view ‘taking a stand’ — as well as examining how we communicate with Millennials; the connection between a corporate brand and product brands; and how reputation affects employee perceptions of your business. To receive a complimentary copy of this year’s Reputation Council report, please email reputationcentre@ipsos.com.