“Doing What’s Right?” Depends on Who You Ask.

supa_dustin_headshotBy Dustin Supa, Assistant Professor of Public Relations, Boston University

Brands that decide to play in the sandbox of social issues must prepare to reap the consequences of their actions, according to research recently published in a special issue of the Public Relations Journal. Companies, specifically CEO’s representing those companies, that are willing to speak out for or against a cause outside of their business purview may be seeking to “do the right thing” for society, but could be risking bottom-line results.

It’s no secret that companies have, for many years, been trying to tie-in to society beyond their products or services.  Coca-Cola and Santa Claus (or the polar bears), Budweiser and the Superbowl (remember the Bud Bowls?), and Campbell’s Soup and pop art (ok, maybe it was just lucky).  We certainly have no proof that Santa (or polar bears) prefer Coke over Pepsi, that Budweiser bottles are any better at football than a bottle of microbrew, or that starving pop artists prefer Campell’s soup over Ramen.  But for the most part, we can recognize these marketing ploys for what they are and at worst, we tolerate them.

Today; however, companies are going well beyond cute advertising campaigns to attempt to leverage their brands in some aspect of our day to day lives, and even going beyond well-planned lobbying efforts that attempt to influence legislation (ie., the tobacco lobby, airline lobby – anything lobby).  Now companies are attempting to impose their influence in a concerted direct-to-consumer effort of social issues such as same-sex marriage, healthcare reform and gun control (to name a few)via public statements made by CEO’s and other corporate leaders. 

Same-sex marriage is a popular one.  Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz is for it, and therefore Starbucks is for it. Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A, made it clear in July of 2012 his company supported the “traditional family,” ergo, Chick-Fil-A is against it (should be noted that Cathy has since lightened his stance). The result of each of these stances? Boycotts, petitions, angry politicians, sit-ins (more accurately “kiss-ins”)revenue increases, revenue decreases, so on and so forth, which begs the question: What does same-sex marriage have to do with coffee or chicken sandwiches?

Researchers Melissa Dodd (University of Central Florida)and Dustin Supa (Boston University)have dubbed this Corporate Social Advocacy, when a company engages with an issue that is separate from their organizational relevance, is controversial and has an impact on desired goals and outcomes for the company.  In a study sponsored by the Arthur W. Page Center, Dodd and Supa sought to determine the impact of companies engaging in societal issues on consumers’ intent to purchase from those companies. They found that when consumers are aware that a company has taken a stance, their purchase behavior was linked to the level in which they sided with the company’s position.  In other words, people like to buy products from companies that support issues they support.  But the opposite is also true.

So what’s a poor corporate CEO with a conscience to do? Standing up for an issue (more accurately – throwing the weight of a major corporation’s influence behind an issue) might mean energizing like-minded consumers to spend more money, but it might also mean that non-like-minded consumers could arrange for a variety of protests, and more importantly, not buy stuff. In the end, the research doesn’t tell us exactly how we should behave, only that consumers will react.  So common sense tells us that if a company wants to tackle social issues, they had better be able to handle the bumps and bruises that come with it.

 About the Author: Dustin Supa is an assistant professor of public relations at Boston University. His research focuses on media relations, the intersection of advertising and public relations and the role of corporations in advocacy communication. 

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1 Comment

  1. WT "Bill" McKibben on December 12, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    Famous saying, “If you are doing it for the money, you are doing it for the wrong reason.” Money should not be a factor, job security should not be a factor. This kind of discussion is pointless and counterproductive, there are no two sides to right and wrong. The right thing is the right thing. Yes, situational ethics exist, but in the case of issues of this magnitude, there is no middle ground. Those who hold to the “wrong” have every right to express their twisted views, but it doesn’t make them right. Examine the evidence and stand for the right. If it costs you money, if it costs you your job, neither are worth selling your honor.