In an age so heavily saturated with buzz issues and controversial topics, it can be really difficult to navigate through a successful PR strategy. Where do you stand on immigration? Abortion? Gender equality? Every industry and field is inevitably connected to some humanitarian, environmental, or economical issue, and anymore it seems everyone is bound to offend someone. As communication advances and people become more aware of the issues unfolding around them, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate personal opinion from company function. Fortunately, there's some evidence that suggests maybe you shouldn't.

The Power of Consumers

Part of the problem stems from a flawed system of representation. People may not always feel like their vote or protests make a difference or have any real impact on the issues they care about, but they do know one thing they have control over and can leverage to impact something: their money. In many ways, consumer buying power is the new vote, and there's a heightened awareness of where money goes when a purchase is made as well as the kind of company that money is contributing to.

This 'new' sentiment is reflected in recent research too, as 56% of Americans now believe corporations should take a stand for what they believe in regardless of whether or not it's controversial. Another study found that Americans are 8.1% more likely to purchase from companies that share their opinion and 8.4% less likely to purchase from companies that don't. The buying process has transcended from a simple like or dislike for products or services; buyers now expect the brands they support to mirror and align with their personal beliefs.

For a perfect example of this, look no further than what happened with SeaWorld. The theme park used to be a giant within the entertainment industry, annually bringing in upwards of $37.4 million. Then, a controversial documentary, Blackfish, was released that exposed a grim and deeply unethical reality behind their Orca captivity program. Protests mounted, petitions circulated, and people boycotted SeaWorld by refusing to contribute to a business with practices that went against what they believed was right. Following the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld saw an 84% drop in net second-quarter income the following year as well as a steady decline in both revenue and number of park visitors.

Considering Audience

Whether or not brands really need to take a stance on something might depend on who they're marketing to in the first place. While it's almost harder to avoiding taking a stance on some relevant issue than it is to just acknowledge or assert an opinion, it's possible that it might work better for some brands to remain removed from controversy. In deciding how or whether or not to address controversial issues, it helps to consider who your target audience is.

More than anything else, data shows a relationship between age groups and purchase decisions. According to a Forbes study:

  • Buyers in the 18-25 and 26-35 age groups are the most likely to demonstrate increased intention to purchase from companies with stances that align with individual beliefs.
  • Those in the 36-45 and 46-55 age groups are the least likely to consider corporate social advocacy from companies they buy from, regardless of belief alignment.
  • Across the board in both of the middle age groups, buyers had a 5.5% increase in purchasing intentions when corporate stances were consistent with personal beliefs.
  • The 56 or older age group was 16.2% less likely to purchase from the company when corporate stances were inconsistent with individual beliefs.

From a business standpoint, whether or not your company stands to gain from weighing in on a controversial issue or a greater cause depends largely on target market, but not standing for anything could be costing you.

Tips and Advice

Regardless of whether or not your brand takes the hard stance on and issue or chooses to incorporate certain moral beliefs into company strategy, there are some general practices that can help guide you through the difficult process of branding in an age of controversy.

1. Always Be Respectful

Brand messaging and PR are tricky things, even more so when it pertains to controversial issues. As a general rule of practice, brands should always seek to prioritize being respectful over being extreme in the expression of their opinions-political, social, or otherwise. There is always a way to express a company's opinion, beliefs, or stance in a tactful and strategic way rather than in a manner that deliberately objectifies, insults, or offends. This applies to company statements, apologies, assertions, internal messages/policy, and more; be cautious and conscious of the delicate nature of wording, engagement, and overall brand messaging.

2. Speak with Action

If you're going to bother taking a stance on something, put your money where your mouth is and let your actions do the talking, because there's little purpose in taking up a cause or plight if you never actually do anything to support it. Take, for example, Patagonia. Patagonia sells a lot of sustainable outdoor clothing and has a mission centered on the necessity of protecting the environment. To bolster that mission and the principles the company claims to stand for, they donate a percentage of their profits annually to environmental conservation. In 2016, they agreed to donate 100% of their global retail and online Black Friday sales directly to grassroots nonprofits that protect the environment. By donating the record-breaking $10 million in sales they made that day, they did more than just talk about protecting the environment-they helped do it.

3. Stick with It and Provide Clarity

It's very important to avoid teeter-tottering on the stance you choose to take as a business. Put due time and energy into research before openly standing behind a cause, organization, or taking up certain beliefs, because once you commit, you should really stick with it. Backing down from an opinion you once held can be detrimental to business and upsetting for consumers. For example, when the Susan G. Komen organization waivered in their support of funding Planned Parenthood, they lost significant funding from donors who were unclear on where they stood. Don't look back once you commit to a cause and always provide more clarity on the matter for consumers. A web page that details a company's beliefs or an open Q&A campaign on social media are ways to promote brand transparency and consumer trust.