Doctor SpinPublic RelationsReputation & CrisisHow to Speak with Social Activists

How to Speak with Social Activists

Find and use your brand’s high road tonality.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

How do you speak with social activists?

Local communities or activist groups have always spoken up when they see an organisation stepping over the line.

Peaceful protests are vital signs of healthy democracies.

As a PR professional, I’ve helped many organisations deal with angry publics. It’s a perfectly natural part of our job description.

But lately, these attacks seem to have spiralled out of proportion.

In this blog post, I’ll discuss why social activists are becoming a larger and larger PR threat in today’s amplified media landscape — and how these social activists ought to be addressed.

Here we go:

The Imbalanced Playing Field

There have always been groups of people who speak out against brands.

However, social activists are becoming an even more severe PR problem that seems to be growing out of proportion.

But the playing field used to be more balanced. While organisations are typically strong, the traditional media logic has always favoured social activists as underdogs.

But when social media is combined with influential societal trends of political correctness, virtue signalling, woke capitalism, and postmodernist identity politics, social activists, can grow their strength exponentially in a matter of hours.

And their attacks are often relentless and unbalanced. They use social media not as a platform for dialogue but as a tool for coercing organisations into compliance.

Where is this imbalance coming from?

Moral Slacktivism—Amplified

“Slacktivism (a portmanteau of slacker and activism) is the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterised as involving very little effort or commitment. Additional forms of slacktivism include engaging in online activities such as “liking,” “sharing,” or “tweeting” about a cause on social media, signing an Internet petition, copying and pasting a status or message in support of the cause, sharing specific hashtags associated with the cause, or altering one’s profile photo or avatar on social network services to indicate solidarity.”
Source: Wikipedia

“Why doesn’t your brand speak out against X?”

Anyone can tag a business on social media and hold it accountable for anything. And fellow online activists will quickly know how to tag along and whip up tensions.

They’re “social slacktivists.”

Their authority stems from professing their moral superiority to mute anyone who doesn’t share their political ideas. This is often referred to as “cancel culture.”

How to Navigate the Culture War (and Avoid Cancel Culture)

Cancel culture can be a challenging PR problem:

“Cancel culture or call-out culture is a phrase contemporary to the late 2010s and early 2020s used to refer to a form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles—whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those subject to this ostracism are said to have been ‘cancelled’.”
Source: Wikipedia 1Cancel culture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia.

Public opinion often forces brands to deplatform individuals, partner organisations, advertisers, collaborators, etc.

“Deplatforming, also known as no-platforming, has been defined as an ‘attempt to boycott a group or individual through removing the platforms (such as speaking venues or websites) used to share information or ideas, or “the action or practice of preventing someone holding views regarded as unacceptable or offensive from contributing to a forum or debate, especially by blocking them on a particular website’.”
Source: Wikipedia 2Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia.

Here’s how to navigate the moral war as a business:

  • Avoid breezy grandstanding. CSR- and ESG activities should be laser-focused, clearly defined, and business relevant.
  • Internally, celebrate different thinking. Having coworkers who think differently is an asset to any business culture.
  • Don’t let the call-out culture intimidate you. Protesters are loud and noisy, primarily online, but they don’t have the numbers to match.
  • Focus your PR strategy on the silent majority. Most of your customer base will be in the silent majority, not in the extremes.

Read also: How To Navigate the Culture War

Rather than proposing dialogue or debate, online activists tend to gravitate toward making severe threats, demanding total conformity, and organising efforts to smear or deplatform the brand and its spokespeople.

“Deplatforming, also known as no-platforming, has been defined as an ‘attempt to boycott a group or individual through removing the platforms (such as speaking venues or websites) used to share information or ideas, or “the action or practice of preventing someone holding views regarded as unacceptable or offensive from contributing to a forum or debate, especially by blocking them on a particular website’.”
Source: Wikipedia 3Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia.

From a PR perspective, social activists seem to resort to increasingly more anti-democratic measures to coerce brands into total obedience.

Cancel culture and de-platforming are typical measures used to exert pressure on public opinion through the spiral of silence:

The Spiral of Silence

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann - Spiral of Silence - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Professor Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916-2010).

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isolation due to peer exclusion will pressure publics to silence their opinions.

Rather than risking social isolation, many choose silence over expressing their true opinions.

“To the individual, not isolating himself is more important than his own judgement. […] This is the point where the individual is vulnerable; this is where social groups can punish him for failing to toe the line.”
— Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann

As the dominant coalition gets to stand unopposed, they push the confines of what’s acceptable down a narrower and narrower funnel (see also the opinion corridor).

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
— Noam Chomsky

Read also: The Spiral of Silence

Freedom of Speech is a Two-Way Street

In a democracy, all organisations must be open to criticism—however unpleasant or unsubstantiated.

Freedom of speech is a pillar of PR as well. Whenever the management of an organisation is under heavy fire and they’re trying to hide, escape, or deflect, the PR function is there to promote transparency and public action.

PR has this function, not due to any moral high ground but because promoting openness in the face of adversity is good for business.

Negative feedback is simply more valuable. The status quo is still preserved if an organisation fails to adhere to positive feedback and nothing changes.

But if an organisation fails to adapt to negative feedback, the problems don’t disappear. Hence, openness is necessary for survival.

Contrary to popular belief, when criticism is put forth against an organisation, the PR function is typically at the front lines for promoting dialogue and change.

But the basic principles of freedom of speech also apply to social activists. Self-proclaimed moral superiority shouldn’t justify anti-democratic and disproportional attacks on organisations.

But sometimes, it seems that it does.

Too Woke—or Not Woke Enough

With CSR issues becoming increasingly important, brands must find strategies to deal with social activists.

Arik C. Hanson, the PR blogger, writes:

“[…] we’ve seen numerous reports from vendors and agencies like Edelman telling us 1 in every 2 customers is a ‘belief-driven buyer.’ And, of those buyers, 65% will not buy from a brand because they stayed silent on an issue it had an obligation to address.”

So, how do we navigate the jungle of moral issues?

A common brand strategy, albeit insignificant, is to wait and see which issues become pressing enough to warrant action.

At best, such a strategy is opportunistic and callous. If you choose this route, the media will expose your brand to accusations of piggybacking on the social agenda.

Being too woke is just as bad as not being woke enough.

It backfired when Gillette came out in front of ongoing gender discussions by shaming themselves and their customer base for being perpetrators of toxic masculinity.

I wouldn’t recommend brands make it their business to inform adults how they should be living their lives. I would recommend more focused CSR activities instead.

Opting to score points by going for the moral high ground is risky. Opting to please social activists while disregarding the business strategy is madness.

Moral Pragmatism

Social reforms are complex by nature.

Whilst both the news media and the social algorithms are preferential to portraying conflicts as having only two polar opposite sides, the reality of social change is better understood as a spectrum.

A brand could be super progressive by design, but any brand must remember that its coworkers might have various political persuasions. Diversity is good—also when it comes to political ideas.

Let’s be pragmatic.

Should brands sit down every morning to go through all potential social issues and say, “Where do we stand on this particular issue?” Should a social policy team spend days drafting possible responses while continuously updating a growing library of documents?

Well, maybe they should. But for most brands, this type of setup would be financially impossible. Irresponsible, even.

There must be a way, right?

Teaching Brands to Speak Human

“How hard can it be to stand up against injustice?” someone might ask.

Finding answers is a responsibility that often befalls social media, content, and community managers.

So, how should a community manager respond to social activists online?

As humans, we’ve evolved to communicate with each other, not with abstractions. This is why we tend to humanise brands, to think of a brand as a living entity with a mind of its own. In public relations, we humanise brands for this exact reason.

But while an organisation is not “human” in any sense, it must still be taught to impersonate a human being.

And make no mistake about it:

Getting an organisation to “speak human” with many unique individuals is challenging.

The High Road Tonality

The strategy I recommend is to begin by asking yourself how a mature, patient and decent person would respond.

How would this work?

The High Road Tonality

An organisation is the total sum of all its coworkers. Imagine taking the most mature traits from each coworker and combining them into one voice — the high road tonality.

  • Openness. A mature organisation understands that everyone must be allowed to express their thoughts and opinions.
  • Fairness. A mature organisation will see (and respect) both sides of a divisive argument.
  • Strength. A mature organisation is confident in its chosen strategies and acquired abilities, not because they’re perfect, but because they are grounded.
  • Wisdom. A mature organisation will take their time to explain complex topics without condescendence.
  • Humility. A mature organisation understands that no one can have everything completely figured out and that we all have learning and growing to do.

Read also: The High Road Tonality: Don’t Be Pushed Around

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

Additional Resources: Publics in PR

Publics in Public Relations

Here’s how to define ‘publics’ in public relations:

‘Publics’ in PR = a psychographic segment (who) with similar communication behaviours (how) formed around a specific issue (why).

Please note:

Psychographic segment = similarities in cognitive driving factors such as reasoning, motivations, attitudes etc.

Communication behaviours = how the public’s opinion is expressed (choice of message, rhetorical framing, and medium type).

Specific issue = determined situationally by a specific social object, often high on the agenda in news media or social media.

Read also: The Publics in Public Relations

1 Cancel culture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia.
2, 3 Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia.


Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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