The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyCrisis CommunicationsHow to Speak with Social Activists

How to Speak with Social Activists

Find and use your brand’s high road tonality.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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 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.

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. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​a​n​c​e​l​_​c​u​l​t​ure

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. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​D​e​p​l​a​t​f​o​r​m​ing

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. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​D​e​p​l​a​t​f​o​r​m​ing

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 genu­ine 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 mor­al high ground but because pro­mot­ing open­ness in adversity is good for busi­ness. 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 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 live 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 it 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 review all poten­tial social issues and ask, “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. 

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. 

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

The High Road Tonality

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

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resources: Publics in PR

Jack Silfwer Close-Up
You become what you think, say, and do.

The 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.

Learn more: The Publics in Public Relations

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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