PR Failure #25: Outdoor Brands Embrace Corporate Social Justice

Aaron Blank / July 21, 2020








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PR Failure #25: Outdoor Brands Embrace Corporate Social Justice

This month, we’re flipping the script on our popular PR Failure series to showcase a PR  success. Don’t worry, though, there are still valuable lessons to learn. Let’s get started.

The murder of George Floyd catalyzed a furor over racial inequity and anti-Black racism unseen since perhaps the summer of 1968. Individuals, groups and even companies turned to social media and other platforms to show their support for reforms, affirm their commitments to diversity and inclusion, and state their opposition to bias and white supremacy. In some cases, the spotlight prompted entire sectors to face some hard facts.

The Story: 

A prime example: the outdoor industry. We all know #oscarsowhite. But there’s been a move afoot for some time to diversify the outdoor industry, which typically shows fit white folks engaging in adventure and nature as though Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) never took a hike or went rock-climbing.
 
As corporate America became acutely aware of disparities, BIPOC outdoor enthusiasts amplified their push for representation – in marketing and in hiring. The call was clear: it was well past time for outdoor retailers to acknowledge the lack of inclusion and take tangible steps to correct the problem. Corporate social justice had come to the outdoors.


 

The Success:

Brands big and small across the outdoor industry began owning their past record around race, took steps to show genuine support and were transparent about the necessary changes they would enact.

They condemned Floyd’s killing, participated in the #BlackOutTuesday social media campaign, observed Juneteenth and gave employees the day off for protest marches.

But perhaps the most surprising move was made by The North Face, which became the first big brand to pull their advertising from Facebook and Instagram as part of the NAACP’s #stophateforprofit campaign. REI and Patagonia followed.

Not every follower or customer was happy about the move. Some called it virtue signaling or bandwagoning. Others are were so offended they said they were leaving the brand. (To be fair, it’s never clear whether people participating in boycotts or making these statements actually did business with the brand in the first place.)

Despite the big-brand buy-in, Facebook hasn’t really budged, according to a statement from the Stop Hate for Profit team after meeting with the platform’s leadership:

“It was abundantly clear in our meeting today that Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team is not yet ready to address the vitriolic hate on their platform. Zuckerberg offered the same old defense of white supremacist, antisemitic, Islamophobic and other hateful groups on Facebook that the Stop Hate For Profit Coalitions, advertisers and society at large have heard too many times before. Instead of actually responding to the demands of dozens of the platform’s largest advertisers that have joined the #StopHateForProfit ad boycott during the month of July, Facebook wants us to accept the same old rhetoric, repackaged as a fresh response. The only recommendation they even attempted to address is hiring a civil rights position but were unable to commit to the crucial piece of the position being at the C-suite level or what the requirements for the position will be.”

The Lessons: 

What can you learn from the outdoor industry? Regardless of what sector your organization operates in, you should:
 

  • Be aware of societal shifts. Your organization operates in an ecosystem. Paying attention to ideological changes on a broad scale isn’t just about PR – it’s a core aspect of being a sustainable business. Monitor trends and gather senior team members regularly to discuss how those movements intersect with your customers, vendors and employees and plan a response. Outdoor brands have long supported environmental issues, but they haven’t always been vocal about how things like pollution and deforestation impact marginalized communities. Now, they are taking the first steps to connect those dots. See this statement on the Bears Ears National Monument from Patagonia that acknowledges the location’s importance to Indigenous people.

  • Walk the talk. It seems obvious, but if you’re going to use your business or personal platform for values-based marketing, then those values must be at the core of what you do as a business and what you support. If you take a public stand about an issue that your internal practices or processes don’t reflect, you’re going to get called out on it. If your stance and organizational practices don’t align, explain why and what you’ve learned to make the change needed. Here’s how REI did it in the first (of several) statements: “It’s just as stark a reminder for us at REI—that for all our ideals, we are still a long way from achieving them for all in our own community. We must do better. We must continue to challenge ourselves, and our community, to be better listeners, better partners, better advocates for one another. For us to see the change we want in the world outside, we must start inside.”


 

  • Live your brand values. You never want to come off as opportunistic. Still, clearly stating and living by your values can positively impact organizational performance. A February 2020 blog post by Forrester Principal Analyst Jim Nail, The Power Of The Values-Based Consumer — And Of Authentic Brand Values, found that 37% of values-driven firms report double-digit year-on-year revenue growth lifted by consumer sentiment. More than two-thirds (68%) of American consumers say their purchasing decisions are at least somewhat driven by an organization’s social responsibility reputation — and 41% prefer to do business with organizations associated with their own social, environmental and political principles. Values are crucial in recruiting and retaining employees, too.

 

  • Commit and recommit. “This is not a moment, it’s the movement”. This line, from Hamilton’s My Shot, has become a meme associated with the current push against anti-racism and police brutality. It’s true for businesses leaning into their values, too. It all goes back to doing what we say versus what we do. We have to dig deep into this movement for longer than this moment in time – we have to commit to our values and keep moving toward realizing them.


 

  • Do it for the right reasons. It’s unlikely the companies boycotting Facebook thought it would negatively impact the company’s stock price (analysts confirm it won’t). They did it to illustrate their support of certain values, to lead by example and to move public opinion. As Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, noted in a Barron’s interview: “People who are investing and making money off Facebook should ask themselves the same questions advertisers are: ‘Do I still want to keep my corporate brands next to white nationalists’ content—is that the type of thing I want to make money off of?’” Know your reasons and be prepared to continue your actions even when naysayers try to dissuade you.

 
We hope this information helps you run a values-based organization engaged in corporate social justice.
 
Until next month,
 
Aaron Blank
CEO & President
The Fearey Group
 
 

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Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of The Fearey Group, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!