Doctor SpinTrendsCultural TrendsWoke Capitalism is a PR Problem, Too

Woke Capitalism is a PR Problem, Too

If we lose track of business integrity, we lose business, period.

Woke capitalism is fast becoming a severe PR challenge.

We celebrate diversity in the workplace, but we don’t encourage diversity in thoughts, opinions, or sense of humour.

And we know as much from media training—just because someone with an alternate agenda implies that you’re something that you’re not, you must never accept the implication.

Red Bull recently got put to the test.

Table of Contents

    Red Bull and the Inappropriate Joke

    At a recent marketing meeting, a Red Bull employee showed a world map cartoon making fun of the stereotypical US-centric (and sometimes ignorant about the importance of other nations) world view.

    Red Bull leaked world map joke
    Not my type of humour, but also not a corporate message to promote racism.

    In response, the joke was leaked to punish the not-woke-enough corporate culture.

    This happened after an attempt to force the brand’s CSR strategy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement by circulating an online petition amongst Red Bull employees.

    As a result, three high-level executives got fired—loudly accompanied by damaging media insinuations of Red Bull being a racist brand.

    You can’t have high-level executives going behind the organisation’s back for personal reasons.

    Whistleblowing—Or Acting in Bad Faith

    Make no mistake about it:

    Spreading misrepresentations and lobbying against an employer’s business strategy are reasonable grounds for termination — and should not be confused with whistleblowing.

    From Wikipedia:

    “A whistleblower (also written as whistle-blower or whistle blower) is a person who exposes secretive information or activity within a private or public organisation that is deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct. The information of alleged wrongdoing can be classified in many ways: violation of company policy/rules, law, regulation, or threat to public interest/national security, as well as fraud, and corruption.”

    Note that misrepresenting the intention of a joke or driving a personal activist agenda doesn’t fall under this definition. Red Bull should be clear for firing executives as they were acting in bad faith against the company.

    So, what’s the problem?

    Businesses Aren’t Evil by Default

    There’s an entitled belief held by what seems to be a growing number of people in the communications industry that the PR function should be serving as the organisation’s guilty conscience.

    This belief stems from a romantic idea that capitalism is evil and that PR (maybe via CSR?) should balance this inherent malice.

    This is an ideological perspective, for sure, not a professional one.

    Social activism can be a powerful PR tool, but business must come first.

    The PR function has one single purpose, and that is to serve a strategic objective. In business, that objective is to generate profit. Such commerce generates tax incomes for the state, jobs for its citizens, and societal progress through innovation.

    And this is how PR generates value in society, too.

    CSR Must Be Strategic and Focused

    Red Bull, for instance, has a long history of supporting extreme sports, and many of these types of activities have Red Bull to thank for developing into professional elites in their own right—and even Olympic sports in some cases.

    Supporting the extreme sports community has been a strategically valuable and focused approach for the brand.

    For CSR activities to be serving business objectives, any such activities must be a) strategic and b) focused.

    Applying a clear and strategically limited focus on communication isn’t “evil”. And it indeed doesn’t imply bigotry or aggression in specific cases where the brand isn’t “being vocal enough”.

    ‘Business Integrity’ is Not a Buzzword

    Any PR adviser who demands that brands, in general, are morally responsible to side with loud online lynch mobs and brandcallers have seriously misunderstood the purpose of the PR function—and business as well.

    The solution is business integrity, not giving in to those who want to control your agenda.

    As a champion for focused and strategically limited communication, it’s the job of the PR professional to assist the brand in standing up for itself.

    Not to side with online lynch mobs and brandcallers.

    Because a brand with integrity isn’t ashamed of being in business, it isn’t ashamed of providing outstanding products and services at great prices. It isn’t ashamed to provide tax income for the state and produce jobs for people. It isn’t ashamed of driving society forward through innovation, financial risk-taking, and hard work. 1Actually, I promote a Stoic approach to public relations. A business should strive for recognition through dignity by enduring the path of the obstacle.

    In the case of Red Bull, the brand is making strategic and focused CSR contributions to the extreme sports movement.

    Red Bull isn’t a cautionary tale; they’re a best practice case study.

    Few things in business make me sicker to the stomach than when communicators are shaming innovators, entrepreneurs, and financial risk-takers for not being woke enough.

    Woke Capitalism is Bad-Faith Capitalism

    As PR professionals, we know that the news media sometimes can turn into an unreasonable machine set to destroy businesses and individuals without a fair trial. It’s our job to prepare and protect our brands from such online lynch mobs.

    Today, there is a whole new set of lynch mobs to account for:

    Online lynch mobs and brandcallers use secret social media groups to drive de-platforming activities and impose cancel culture. They use deliberate misinterpretation, calls for boycott, brandcalling, card-stacking, cherry-picking, and guilt-by-silence to coerce brands into submission.

    The behaviour amplifies polarisation by creating extremes of identity politics on both sides.

    This development is rapidly becoming more challenging to PR than the struggle of adapting to a digital society.

    If commercial communications departments accept the woke narrative without question, our profession becomes a cancerous and destructive anti-capitalistic force from within.

    Piggybacking on political movements can be a viable PR strategy—if such a strategy makes business sense, that is. 2Unfocused corporate cultural appropriation is by no means a “safe” brand strategy, either. Several big-name brands have gotten into serious trouble by shamelessly piggybacking on the … Continue reading

    Consider this:

    A truly diverse organisation allows employees of different political persuasions to work side-by-side towards a common business goal.

    Providing stable employment and salaries through innovation, collaboration, and hard work will always be the best catalyst for civil society to engage in social causes in their spare time—the way it ought to be.

    And while some businesses are out of touch with their communities, Red Bull surely doesn’t fall under that category.

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

    1 Actually, I promote a Stoic approach to public relations. A business should strive for recognition through dignity by enduring the path of the obstacle.
    2 Unfocused corporate cultural appropriation is by no means a “safe” brand strategy, either. Several big-name brands have gotten into serious trouble by shamelessly piggybacking on the social justice agenda.


    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer, aka 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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