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Avoiding the pitfalls of performative corporate activism

Show and Tell on Oct 15, 2021

mobile phone screens with question mark and megaphone icons

Do you or don’t you jump on social media activism bandwagons? It’s easy to flip your profile pic to orange or black or rainbow and feel like you’ve done something — it might even feel weird if you don’t since everyone else on your feed is doing it. Word to the wise: Be careful.

As an individual, it’s probably fine to express casual allyship on your personal account. But unless your company actually does something (and can prove it has tangibly supported the cause), you could get called out for performative activism, and confronted by those for whom your company intended to show support.

Performative activism is a pejorative term referring to an expression of advocacy done to increase one’s social capital rather than true devotion to a cause.

It’s also referred to as “slacktivism” because it takes little effort or commitment. Quite simply: Performative activism is all talk, no action.

While an expression of support from the community at large is usually appreciated, mere words and social graphics from companies can ring empty since it is assumed companies have the power and means to make real change.

Worse: More and more, businesses and individuals are cashing in on causes by selling themed merchandise with little or no money going to the actual cause. With the public increasingly alert to that kind of mercenary hypocrisy, there is justifiably greater scrutiny on all corporate “support.”

So before you hit share on that Instagram post: Ask yourself, are you actually an ally or are you just pretending to be?

But isn’t there value in social (media) activism?

Short answer: Maybe.

Sure, seeing everyone you know share posts about a social issue can raise awareness — heck, it might even create enough of a groundswell to push decision makers towards policy change. At the very least, shareable posts get people reading and learning more about these topics, and might shift attitudes and bias.

The concern is that these “shows” of support stop short of actual support that can make an actual difference, because people feel like they’ve actually done something just by posting. Maybe people will be moved to do more. But that’s a big maybe.

You may be thinking: My company has a big following and if we express a stance online perhaps that can propel people towards a more educated and socially just world. Doesn’t that have value? Keep in mind this isn’t your personal Facebook account we’re talking about. The followers of corporate social media accounts are way more diverse than your personal friends and followers who likely share your values. They’re also waaaay more likely to call your company out if it missteps. Be careful as a company that you aren’t just talking the talk. You need to walk it (and put your money where your avatar is).

Walk the walk – just make sure you don’t step off a cliff

Most smaller businesses, and even many larger corporations, have an arbitrary approach to deciding what causes they choose to support. Though it's becoming more common, too few have a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy (let alone a proper social media policy). Many HR and marketing folks have an inkling there might be a more strategic way to make a bigger difference and want to, but don’t know how to make the shift. And maybe they are uncomfortable with their company expressing hollow support for causes it doesn’t back up meaningfully.

The thing is, corporations with flimsy CSR strategies and amateurish social media operations are most at risk of getting their company into a fix through seemingly harmless allyship. Yes, changing a social media profile picture is a way to express solidarity with a cause. But flipping your profile pic may make someone flip over some rocks and you might not like what they find.

No company is unassailable because it’s made up of flawed people, who do and have done questionable and wrong things. So you need to be self-aware to avoid taking a stand on a soap box that could collapse under the weight of your company’s current or past misdoings.

Don’t get us wrong: We believe business has a responsibility to give back to community, and there are very good reasons to publicize what they support. Corporate brands do this effectively all the time. But growing mistrust in corporate motivation means you need to consider if your company is standing on solid ground.

We live in a world where everything has a digital footprint. If you aren’t backing up your messaging with real action, your doing — or lack of doing — will be brought to light.

Bell Let’s Talk is a prime example

Bell Canada is well known for its annual Bell Let’s Talk awareness campaign centred on raising awareness and fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness in Canada. Bell was one of the early authors of flipping your social media photo and using a branded hashtag, and actually donates money to mental health causes for every flip and share. And to be frank, Bell’s brand alignment is on point. “Let’s talk” for a telecommunications company? Brilliant. So far so good.

But going back as far as 2017 — large numbers of Bell employees spoke out, and continue to, about the lack of mental health resources at their workplace, despite Bell projecting a trustworthy and empathetic brand through the campaign.

Fast forward to 2021, and Bell Canada was criticized for sugar coating mental health issues with a lack of authenticity in campaign videos. Others have commented to suggest Bell uses the day as a marketing campaign — instead of truly focusing on mental health.

Bell Canada is a pretty big target, so it’s probably big enough to weather these storms of criticism.

But what about your company? If your brand is going to promote a cause, it needs to consider the actions of the company behind the brand and make sure it reflects the values it’s claiming to espouse. And if your company has ever been responsible for missteps, and what company hasn’t, then it needs to own its truth, and before expressing allyship.

Building a sound plan on solid ground

A good corporate social responsibility strategy will be founded in your company values and reflect its brand essence. It will consider what matters to employees and makes them feel good about working at your company.  Research indicates it is psychologically healthy for the workplace, and it allows companies to more easily attract and retain talent, especially Millennials.

A good strategy will also ensure you do the most good you can, rather than just looking like you do. And yes: Do promote your good works — it’s important to inspire other businesses and individuals to follow suit. As one prominent philanthropist once told us, “I slap my name on everything — if only to shame other wealthy people to do the same.” Let your light shine!

With so many different worthy causes, how do you choose what to support? How do you say no?

For starters, you need a plan and a policy. Just like a strategic or marketing plan, this is something your employees will reference all the time for direction – about whether or not to donate money, create an event, or to post something on the company’s social media channels.

Ideally, you’ll involve your employees in suggesting what your company chooses to support, but it’s also a good idea to make sure those choices align with what your company does — and its values and brand — so you can establish parameters for that. It doesn’t need to be this direct, but for example, if you’re a food-based business you might choose to support food banks. If your brand expression is artsy, maybe support arts programs for at-risk youth. If your values lean to innovation, you might donate to post-secondary institutions.

Planning can also help the charities you support because it can add predictability to their project planning. So it’s a good idea to tell your charities of choice if it’s your company’s strategy to make one-time donation, or if your plan is to make a longer-term commitment.

The policy part will also allow you to say your company is sitting on the sidelines for certain social causes. It will ensure your social media managers are selective about how and for what they express support on behalf of your company. And it arms your social media managers with the guidelines that help them say no, even when bosses ask them to flip the company profile pic because their kids told them it was cool. (FYI this has NEVER happened at Show and Tell.)

If you get pushback or pressure, you can go back to your plan and policy to say: “We’re not posting about this cause on social media because we’re not doing enough behind the scenes that aligns with it.” Or even that it would be hypocritical to do so until you take more meaningful action.

This requires a high degree of introspection and self-awareness. But remember — silence is better than drawing negative attention to your brand through hollow support.

And don’t worry — your corporate social responsibility plan can change as your company evolves. We recommend revisiting it every year as part of your strategic planning.

Raising the bar on raising awareness (Go Lions!)

So now that we’ve talked about some potential missteps, let’s look at an example of successful, meaningful corporate allyship: the CFL’s BC Lions Orange Shirt Day Game to raise awareness for Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Let’s start by applauding the beautiful brand alignment, because the Lions colour is already orange. But they elevated this connection, appropriately, by commissioning a stylized version of the BC Lions logo created by Kwakwaka’wakw/Tlingit artist Corrine Hunt.

For its September 24, 2021 game, not only did the team flip its logo, but it also partnered with the Orange Shirt Society, the Ending Violence Association of BC, and the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. So it consulted with the right groups, to make sure its approach was culturally and socially respectful.

With the help of corporate sponsors (the Government of British Columbia, BC Hydro, and FortisBC), they gave out 10,000 of those commemorative orange t-shirts.

Best of all — this partnership supported a $20,000 donation to the Orange Shirt Society and the team provided 350 tickets to residential school survivors and other Indigenous partners for the game. The event was even lauded by Phyllis Webstad, the founder and ambassador for the Orange Shirt Society.

The BC Lions put thought, effort and money into its expression of support, showcasing both local and cross-country allyship to Indigenous Peoples. And to top that off, they consulted with and incorporated the affected community.

Final word: Pause (before you post)

We get it — performative activism is a touchy topic. The allure of a quick profile pic flip is strong. We’re just saying, pause to think before you post. Be prepared, think critically, and act in ways that support your words.

And please support causes you care about! We’d love to help you plan for that in a way that aligns with your brand, its values and how your employees want to feel about their company. (We’d rather help with that plan, than be hired to help you deal with a PR crisis because you didn’t have one…)