Ms. InterPReted Episode 5: #BrandsTakingStands or #GetWokeGoBroke

October 16, 2019

Kelly and Mary Beth stir up some potential heat with this episode, taking to task the growing trend of brands (and their PR / marketing departments and even CEOs) adopting and pushing social debates and hotly contested political issues . . . all on the advice of some PR firms that may (or may not) be properly guiding their clients or otherwise offering up an inappropriate one-size-fits-all approach.

Brand and CEO activism is intended as a so-called strategic extension of brand awareness and engagement campaigns targeting younger audiences in particular and seeking to score loyalty points with consumers in general.

  • But is the #BrandsTakingStands advocacy trend a consistently reliable strategy in the marketing toolbox, with big pay-off potential? After all, major and minor brands alike now are sinking big money into activist stances for the almighty marketing campaign.
  • Or is #GetWokeGoBroke another trending hashtag for a reason . . . with cautionary tales littering the marketing and reputation-management scene, with too many brands “stepping in it” and getting CEO activism irreversibly wrong – with disastrous financial results?

At what point is the commercialization of activism an inauthentic enterprise . . . only ratcheting up public divisiveness and other side-show issues (such as children / youth being used as campaign pawns) in our already divisive and hostile society, news media and social media environment?

Mary Beth uncovers two fairly recent studies sponsored by well-known global agencies that tout CEO activism as a categorical “Must-Do” item in strategic communications . . .

But as Mary Beth and Kelly reveal, there is undisclosed fine print as well as asterisks and even obvious roadblocks to each study’s publicly reported data, telling an entirely different story than the one being promoted in agency news releases favoring aggressive activism stances.

Kelly and Mary Beth offer cautionary points and expose how some PR firms may be looking out only for their own revenue-generating bottom lines instead of clients’ best interests.

In this episode, Kelly Fletcher and Mary Beth West uncover:

  • Does it make sense to go political with your brand?
  • What are the risks… or the rewards… and what should be the ethics?
  • Does activism position brands in a contrived manner as “The Hero” – when more modern storytelling techniques eschew this approach as a brand-development best practice?
  • How do you make this approach successful in today’s era of echo chambers and tunnel vision?
  • Are there “safe” issues – like equal pay or women’s rights? Or does ANY socio-political issue pose a risk?
  • How can social activism ideas and tactics actually fly in the face of #PRdiversity values?
  • How did the University of Tennessee recently hit a major PR homerun using activism in a non-political and highly effective way?


Mary Beth West’s published articles on this topic:


Speaker 1:  Welcome to Ms. InterPReted Her Podcast of public relations and strategic communications demystified by Kelly Fletcher and Fletcher Marketing PR.

Kelly:   Welcome listeners to the Ms. InterPReted podcast. I’m Kelly Fletcher, CEO of Fletcher Marketing PR and I’m here with my co-host Fletcher Senior Strategist, Mary Beth West.

Mary Beth:  Hey there, Kelly it’s great to be here. It was a hot start to fall here in the southland, but glad things have finally cooled off a little bit.

Kelly:   Yeah, at least it’s not in the 90s this week.

Mary Beth:  Exactly.

Kelly:   Um I don’t know. We may be stirring up some heat with this episode because it’s a little controversial, but first what a week it’s been, it’s been very busy. Um our episode list is growing and so was the response to our Ms. InterPReted podcasts.

Mary Beth:  Yes.

Kelly:   Thank you so much. Keep sending your ideas and suggestions. Review the podcast. We really want your feedback. If you have content ideas, we’d love to hear those too. We just got back from Atlanta yesterday, quick trip down and back for client meetings and we also had lunch with an exciting upcoming guest, too.

Mary Beth:  I’m very excited about her. Um she is a trailblazer in the Atlanta LGBT community. Actually a personal friend of mine, I’m not going to give too much away at the moment. But yeah, very excited about having her on an upcoming episode.

Kelly:   Me too. And the best feedback I think we’re getting is on the substance and relevance

Mary Beth:  Right.

Kelly:   Of the topics that we’re talking about. And we promised that we’d be diverse in our subject matter. So we plan to stay true to that. So today, Mary Beth and I want to tackle an issue that’s really been making the rounds this year in social media and that’s the matter of how some brands are adopting and pushing social debates and even hotly contested political ideas.

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:  As a so called strategic extension of their brands.

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   And this can be um this can be a big problem.

Mary Beth:  Yeah. It can be very controversial and um you know the whole area of CEO and brand activism, it’s really taken on a life of its own. And I think we uh referenced in one of the past episodes about the Nike situation, the Gillette case study.

Kelly:   Right.

Mary Beth:  It’s an area that is so prone to misinterpretation and for brand messages to get skewed in the process. And even for companies to find themselves in the process of they’re trying to be relevant with their own activist message. They find themselves in full on crisis mode. It doesn’t take much to be viewed as off the mark and artful and you could even be viewed as some form of social pariah in the process, which is obviously the last thing you want to do.

Kelly:   And this issue is really relevant for so many reasons. I mean just the ability for something to go viral so quickly

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   And impact um consumer opinion

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   And consumer purchasing decisions. And there are definitely two diametrically opposed views out there

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   That we’re going to be taking a look at today. The hashtag brands taking stands is the one that seems to advocate

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   For the rationale for companies and brands to be doing this.

Mary Beth:  Right. Right.

Kelly:   And to make it a centerpiece of their PR efforts. Not so sure I agree with that. But another hashtag, which I think is so funny, get woke, go broke, um pretty much pushes cautionary tales of politics gone wrong

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   And how brands are stepping in it with their customers, employees, investors, the media, online audiences, you name it, every possible stakeholder group. And then they can end up losing millions or even billions of dollars in the process.

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   So you have to be careful here. So here are some things that we’re going to talk about today.

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   Does it make sense to go political with your brand? If so, when should you do it? What should be the criteria? What are the risks? Are there any rewards that you can put out there that you know you’ll get? How do you make this approach successful in today’s era of echo chambers and tunnel vision? And are there safe issues like equal pay or women’s rights or homelessness

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   Or does any sociopolitical issue pose a risk?

Mary Beth:  Well you know just when is it bad form to get political? I think is that overarching question. And that’s the one that I’ve been struggling a little bit as I’ve seen what’s been going on in the larger landscape and especially in social media. We mentioned a few episodes ago in the marketing to women that you know some brands even have hijacked the me too movement in order just to sell some you know hashtag imprinted merch. You know so when is a backlash of that form? Does it really pose a real risk for a you know a company to put its brand around and really try to be about that?

Kelly:   Well let’s talk about that, I mean why is this issue so relevant right now and why does it matter?

Mary Beth:  Well, one thing that I’ve noticed is over the past couple of years in particular, some big name PR firms have asserted that going activist is the thing to do. So now it’s become the rigor, if you will. It’s a trend. It’s hip, it’s hot, it’s a bandwagon. Um you know bandwagons and my experience though in having just been in this business as long as I have. They have a notorious habit of careening off cliffs with everyone on board.

Kelly:   That’s a visual.

Mary Beth:  Yeah, indeed. And it’s uh you know the amount of time that it takes to go from being a hot trend to some, I don’t know, big splat on the reputational windshield can be clocked in minutes these days. So when does CEO activism morph into a form of open mouth insert foot syndrome, but in a very contrived, very high investment way? I mean, these companies are sinking some serious dollars into these activists campaigns at the behest of PR council. So you know at the same time you have to be sophisticated so that audiences can see right away that it’s not some type of contrived effort that it’s an organic thing. But a lot of times I don’t think that that’s what’s happening now.

Kelly:   No, I think it is contrived

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   And manufactured for the most part. And it seems to me that research is probably getting the short end

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   Of the stick on this.

Mary Beth:  Yeah I would agree.

Kelly:   Because if… and we’re going to look at some studies today

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   And refute some of the data, but there’s so much bad advice that is getting pushed out there by trusted authorities

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   And there’s a serious risk. We cannot forget that one campaign gone wrong can put you out of business.

Mary Beth:  Right. Right. Um it poses very serious financial risk. And you know, when you back up and look at the 30,000 foot view, it seems that the public relations profession should be about uh bringing people together and not creating so much divisiveness, not contributing to the divisiveness. It seems like the last thing our global society needs is more grist for the mill pushing perceived divisiveness and all of its little ugly cousins, hostility, ranker, hate, you know fractured and twisted messaging for the sake of pure profit. All of these things are serious issues that come really part and parcel with this type of strategy.

Kelly:   I think it’s a fight for profits

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   And maybe this is just a new trendy way that CEOs

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   Think that maybe they can even build their own personal brands in the process.

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm yeah.

Kelly:   There’s also the issue of how brand activism is playing into the realm of professional activists.

Mary Beth:  Right. Yeah.

Kelly:   And exploiting these causes. We’ve seen a whole industry pop up

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   Surrounding that. They’re even nonprofits who have popped up for the-

Mary Beth:  Or so called nonprofits.

Kelly:   So called nonprofits.

Mary Beth:  Very often they’re into astro turfing

Kelly:   Right.

Mary Beth:  And trying to uh lend the appearance that they are doing a grass roots campaign or that a grass roots campaign has organically manifested itself when nothing of the sort has happened.

Kelly:   No it’s all completely propaganda.

Mary Beth:  But yeah. Right.

Kelly:   So I think in PR right now, I think we live more in a world of propaganda than we ever have.

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   But one thing that’s of particular concern to me is youth activism

Mary Beth:  Oh yeah.

Kelly:   And where young people are being used as pawns on the national or even international stage. I’m not going to mention any examples here, but I think most people have seen this play out and kids are getting pushed out there in ways that are going to impact them for the rest of their lives.

Mary Beth:  Oh yeah.

Kelly:   And I hate to see that.

Mary Beth:  Yeah, I mean things can get out of hand with activism PR. What PR firms and their clients are often igniting is, I think the best way for me to describe it is that they intend for it to be a controlled burn. Okay? I mean let’s look at the, I mean, when you think about the world of literal firefighting, and very often when we talk about crises, we’re talking about things that are on fire. You know, things-

Kelly:   Like your office once was.

Mary Beth:  Yeah, exactly. That’s a whole other episode for sure to talk about that for crisis uh communications. But the um this imagery that we have a controlled burn is where firefighters intentionally set small fires that are intended to be 100% controlled for the purpose of reducing flammable materials in the wild. It’s like underbrush and things like that. The whole intent of a controlled burn is prevention of a crisis uh in that context. But you look at the world of PR and activism, PR generates what can immediately be fiery discourse. I mean the exact opposite of-

Kelly:   Prevention.

Mary Beth:  Yes, exactly. And on a public stage to boot, I mean, it’s intended to be maintained and controlled by the brand for purposes that support the brand by casting the brand you know as a hero, a fighter for the greater good truth, justice and the American way. Mom and apple pie.

Kelly:   The brand should never be the hero. And I think these activist brands,

Mary Beth:  Oh that’s such a good point. Yeah.

Kelly:   The activist brands are trying to make the brand a hero even in ways and spaces that are completely irrelevant to what they do or who their customer base or their stakeholders are.

Mary Beth:  That is such a good point. That is such a good point. Um and it it it’s uh I think it’s irrefutably old school that the brand be the hero and always the hero

Kelly:   Yes.

Mary Beth:  And always have all of the answers. Uh and I do think that that notion is incredibly naive. Um I mean, going back to my little fire analogy here, I mean whenever you throw a lit match into the kerosene of today’s public discourse, I mean that’s what we’re talking about here. Like social media, anything else that can attract the attention of cable news or a celebrity Twitter handle with millions of followers, that fire that gets ignited can be anything but controlled.

Mary Beth:  I mean that’s the power of unintended consequences. When we talk about this purposeful brand activism, PR, it’s as high risk as it can be. And you know crises can easily ignite in the process. Um who does that benefit? Well for one, it can sure benefit PR firms, I mean-

Kelly:   It’s extra work for us.

Mary Beth:  Yes, exactly. And I think there’s this fiduciary level of intent that we should have of, and we talked about this on one of the very early episodes of Ms. InterPReted that as public relations counsel, we should be fiduciary stewards of our clients or our employers resources. But ironically we have quite a few firms out there right now that are aggressively advocating. I mean they’re out there advocating for brands to ignite these fires and to hire them, these PR firms themselves to help them not only in the ignition of the fire but also the containment program.

Kelly:   Putting it out.

Mary Beth:  Yeah, yeah putting it out or dealing with the full on crisis that ensues there.

Mary Beth: So if it explodes into a full on crisis, these same PR firms have got you covered there too. Not so coincidentally.

Kelly:   Yeah.

Mary Beth:  All of them have their crisis management practices as well, but they’re more than happy to charge full rate to these same clients-

Kelly:   Isn’t that called returning to the scene of the crime?

Mary Beth:  Exactly. Well it’s called kind of a conflict of interest. I mean, but yes. So there are a lot of different terms for it for sure, but they can be then paid to help contain the crisis that ironically the PR firms started by virtue of this jacked up activism strategy. It’s kind of crazy. Um so listeners, I mean especially those with PR firms that have thriving activism or cause marketing practices out there. Forgive the comparison, but you know I think that what we’re seeing here is not just a controlled burn by PR firms that have gone whole hog, if you will, in pushing activism and cause marketing practices.

Mary Beth:  It’s my argument that what we may be what may be going on here in some cases is nothing short of arson really and a big insurance policy only for the PR firms.

Kelly:   And I think for us to come out and take a stance on it is very important.

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   Because from an ethic standpoint and from who we are as an agency, it’s not what we’re about at all.

Mary Beth:  Right. Right. Now, is this the case in every single scenario? I mean absolutely not uh and we shouldn’t cast criticism in the form of absolutes. Activism campaigns, I think that when undertaken ethically to your point and for the right reasons and with the client being fully engaged and aware of what’s going on, what they’re signing up for, and to what specific ends it’s going to take their brands. That all can be very compelling and effective in the right context. But I mean, Kelly, that’s a lot of ifs thrown into the mix.

Kelly:   It is, and I think that maybe some brands are starting to confuse activism with corporate social responsibility, which is an entirely different thing.

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   And we’ll be talking about that.

Mary Beth:  It’s related, yeah, but it is a very different, certainly a very different strategic approach and I mean what I’m advocating for here is transparency and disclosure as to the rationales, the process and the true business case of what’s really going on.

Kelly:   And you’ve taken quite an in depth look at this and you’ve written a couple articles on the subject

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   And um you had a blog on LinkedIn.

Mary Beth:  Right. Yeah. Back in March, I did put out a blog post that exposed a couple of industry studies that were done by two separate PR firms, which shall remain nameless for purposes of this conversation. I think it’s much more important to focus on the data they produce then to really get into pointing fingers at the agencies by name themselves. But yeah, I did do um a blog post on that and folks can find that um on my LinkedIn profile. The name of the article is Spin Cycle PR Firms Push CEO Activism with Selective Data. And then there was another article that I wrote for the USA Today Network Tennessee. It was called um Rise of Do Gooder Marketing can Pose Reputational Risks and both pieces really talked about this issue.

Kelly:   So let’s talk about the agency A and agency B studies and what you took issue with. Um you got me interested in-

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   And I dug in and read the data too. I don’t think a lot of people do that. They just look at the findings and they look at the-

Mary Beth:  Yeah they look at the news release.

Kelly:   They look at the news release.

Mary Beth:  That was sent out by the agency.

Kelly:   Yeah so they don’t really look at the data to see if it adds up. So, for our listeners who aren’t in PR, agency A and agency B are two very well respected global PR firms.

Mary Beth:  Oh yes. Oh absolutely. They absolutely are very well respected in which makes some of these insights that they are pushing on this very specific topic. At least to me, it’s all the more confusing and I mean frankly a bit disappointing in terms of how they chose to put that uh put that information out there. So what we’ll call as agency A, uh their data about CEO activism was part of a larger survey that included many other issues and agency A, this was part of their annual trust survey. Um if I said out loud what the name of the survey is, I think most people in the industry would would recognize it. It is one of the most cited longitudinal studies on the issues of reputation and trust globally. I in fact, have cited it many times over my career this past decade.

Mary Beth:  It’s a very valid study in and of itself, but this specific component of it that they generated was problematic. My problems with both firms, survey analyses were focused squarely on their conclusion specific to the CEO activism topics. Okay, so let me just kind of focus on that part. Incidentally, as part of my due diligence and writing my blog post on this, I did contact both firms to ask more probing questions. Interestingly-

Kelly:   Journalism. Journalist in you come out.

Mary Beth:  Yeah, journalism school right here at University of Tennessee. Thank you. Um I emailed two agency A officials um just to ask them some questions and try to follow up and kind of probe at how they arrived at their data. Both of my emails to them were ignored, um however agency B, the second one with the second study, they were very responsive. Um in fact, they responded within minutes of my emailing them.

Kelly:   That’s awesome.

Mary Beth:  So they get kudos um even though they will remain nameless for purposes of this conversation.

Mary Beth:  But they were quite courteous, very helpful and making, I mean they basically confirmed everything that I was gleaning from the study as actually being quite problematic, which uh was interesting. Um the blog post was published March 25th of this year. And so in all these months since I have never been contacted by either agency to say, oh wait, you’ve got something wrong or you misinterpreted some of our information or some of our data. So um everything that I’m about to report here is I think still on the money.

Kelly:   Well what were the methodology concerns um with either study?

Mary Beth:  Mm.

Kelly:   Because we all know that data can be interpreted a lot of different ways

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   And we can pull insights out that aren’t necessarily a hundred percent accurate for sometimes for your own personal gain.

Mary Beth:  Right.

Kelly:   So what did you see in these studies that raise the red flags?

Mary Beth:  Well for me, the methodologies looked fairly solid in and of themselves. I did see some nomenclature problems, you know the use of wording or descriptors, particularly in the agency A study that could be interpreted in different ways. For example, they use the word progressive in some of their descriptors uh when they were actually talking about more progressive communications. I think like more digital communications

Kelly:   Right.

Mary Beth:  As opposed to, you hear the word progressive nowadays and you definitely put that into a political

Kelly:   Right.

Mary Beth:  Category as left of center

Kelly:   Yes.

Mary Beth:  Usually is how that’s um that’s interpreted. Uh interchanging the term social issues and societal issues. I mean there was some things like that, that may be kind of nitpicking in some people’s view, but they never did really quantify or define some of those kinds of terms.

Mary Beth:  But all of that stuff aside, really my biggest issue with both studies was that pro activism, you know the survey news headlines that they put out arguably reflected what I think were just cherry-picking exercises. They did not match. Some of these PR firms own critical data points. And I mean Kelly, frankly I think they hardly tell the whole truth about CEO and brand activism’s downsides and we’ve already talked about what those look like.

Kelly:   Well, admittedly when I browsed through both of the studies, I paid more attention to the graphics,

Mary Beth:  Yes. Right.

Kelly:   The callout graphics because we’re all busy. And I think as professionals we have a tendency to just trust

Mary Beth:  Sure. Yeah.

Kelly:   Whatever is out there if it’s from a reputable source. So I paid more attention to the graphic takeaways than anything. But what were the you know what were the biggest issues that you saw from the actual survey data

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   Of either study?

Mary Beth:  Well, um and I’ll keep it high level because actually there were numerous problems and you’d have to look at the blog posts that I put together to really see and dissect all of that. If you’re really interested, you can take a look, but let me just keep it high level. For agency A, their survey news release headline blasted out the news. And I’m going to quote this quote, “Survey of Institutional Investors Reveals Urgent Need for Public Companies to Address Societal Issues to Build Trust”. Okay. So from that headline alone-

Kelly:   I’d like to call BS on that.

Mary Beth:  Well,  and you know, I was very interested when I saw that headline and of course it prompted me to get more into the the nuts and bolts of the analysis. But from that headline, I think really any normal consumer or certainly business person would infer a pretty sweeping statement and a mandate. I mean urgent need for public to address societal issues to build trust.

Kelly:   And that’s when the CEO calls in the communications person and says, we need to do this.

Mary Beth:  Right. Exactly.

Kelly:   And automatically thinks it’s going to work. And it’s a great idea.

Mary Beth:  Exactly. Well and agency A, in their news release, they reported that quote, “98% of investors think public companies are urgently obligated,” not just that they need to do it. “They’re obligated to address one or more societal issues”. So, does that mean that all public companies, which incidentally are the ones with the highest budgets, um for PR, need to pull out their soapbox and just start promulgating opinions on any number of politically oriented topics? I mean that’s that’s a takeaway that I think some people might get.

Kelly:   Oh, I think so. And it’s um a firestorm using that analogy again waiting to happen with various publics.

Mary Beth:  Right. But even that 98% number, it ended up being, I think very misleading because upon review of their published full results of the study, only cybersecurity and workplace diversity registered above 50% of US institutional investors support for companies to take a public stand.

Kelly:   Which those make a little bit more sense.

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   Um cyber security and workplace diversity, but that does not equal a headline as strong as what was-

Mary Beth:  Right, well basically what they had was a list of all of these different quotes, “societal issues” of which those two were on that list. But like things like uh gun control, they were not on the list. Some of these more um controversial subjects. And if any institutional investor responded to the survey, just check even one of all the things that were on the list that was included in the 98%.

Kelly:    Okay.

Mary Beth:  Okay? So this is where we get into the cherry picking of data and the slicing and dicing of things. Um and in truth agency A’s list really only receive luke warm to weak institutional investor support for companies to take a stand on you know issues across the board. I mean it just wasn’t there. Now, let me shift over to agency B and the study that they had, um there were just a lot of issues on that one and how the data were reported and in my view, mischaracterized.

Mary Beth:  And for example, agency B had this huge headline touting their survey data saying CEO activism pays all caps exclamation point with big dollar signs all over their call out graphic. Okay?

Kelly:   Yeah.

Mary Beth:  So like money is to be made here with CEO activism was the implied message.

Kelly:   And the explanation point is like laughing at your own joke.

Mary Beth:  Exactly. Well, and the firm stated in it’s news release, that CEO activism positively affects US consumer purchase decisions. They even said quote, “42% of consumers aware of CEO activism have taken action through purchasing behaviors.” Now 42% that does, that’s eh, it’s a luke warm number to begin with.

Kelly:   Right.

Mary Beth:  But listen to this, shocking fine print on that one. And I just have to laugh. Nearly twice as many consumers said their action taken has been not to buy from or even to boycott the activist company as opposed to buying more from the company.

Mary Beth:  Okay?

Kelly:   That’s um crazy.

Mary Beth:  So not only I mean not only are these respondents saying that they would not buy from or even boycott the, this was a seven point increase from the previous year. So this is on an upward trajectory of more people having a negative reaction than having a positive reaction. So their data only indicates that uh what 18% there’s 18% consumer report uh consumer support rather of a positive purchasing outcome for the activist company. Which agency B excluded from its promotional messaging entirely in the news release. I mean, to me that is just PR malpractice right there.

Kelly:   Right, yeah.

Mary Beth:  Agency B also made this statement and pay attention to these last three words. Quote “nearly half of consumers, 46% would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue they agree with.”

Kelly:    Well duh.

Mary Beth:  So, Okay. So consumers must first agree with the specific position a CEO is advocating on an issue before only 46% of that particular subset would be even would be more likely to buy from the company. Which of itself is only a potentially positive outcome, not a definitive one.

Kelly:    Right.

Mary Beth:  I mean and I know this is getting into the weeds and this is getting into you know, numbers and data that you know a lot of people just don’t want to have to get into it. But guess what? The devil is in the details. And I think we’re looking at the devil here. I mean consequently agency B’s best assurance to see suite executives considering an activist PR campaign, is that only a percentage of a percentage of consumers may offer only a perspective, positive reaction. I mean all of that just presents a tenuous basis at best to open up Pandora’s box of risky corporate activism messaging and it just gets all over me that they had this data underpinning this study and they came out with the news release that they did. I still can’t believe it.

Kelly:   Bad for our entire profession. Um there’s some serious ethical considerations here. And why would either firm be motivated to promote survey data that didn’t match up?

Mary Beth:  Well I mean on that point, I mean only those two firms can speak to that either agency A or agency B. Um I do invite uh both of them to get in touch with us and let us know. I mean if they want to go in and look at the actual blog post, certainly I use the agency’s names there. But um we do welcome if they have other insights here to allow to this conversation. But I do want to point out the obvious. As I mentioned earlier, there is a profit motive for PR firms that have a quote brand activism practice, you know to be pushing business development to that profit making area of their agencies and banging this gong that CEO activism is the best thing since sliced bread or the up and coming bright and shiny new thing in the marketing tool box, seems to be the strategy in play here.

Mary Beth:  Um I think that backing up from this specific example, it’s important for all public relations firms to place client and perspective client interests first and as I mentioned earlier, that includes fiduciary interests. And you know we’re in the agency business, Kelly, I mean you and I both are and we have been for many years. We all want to drum up business by sharing thought leadership content. That’s what we’re doing with this podcast.

Kelly:    Yeah, it absolutely is what we’re doing with this podcast. But it comes down to you cannot tell a story that isn’t true.

Mary Beth:  Exactly.

Kelly:   Um in any way, shape or form.

Mary Beth:  Absolutely. And uh there’s nothing wrong with business development and it’s good to share knowledge and insights, but we do have to be careful and only place good counsel out in the public domain and into the marketplace of ideas. And where the industry runs into problems is if any firm gets into this slicing and dicing and cherry picking data, exercise and presenting it in ways that may be technically true if you parse words in just the right way, uh but that actually are critically false or very easily misleading in the larger context.

Mary Beth:  All for the purpose of helping drive business their way.

Kelly:   Well, these are only two firms

Mary Beth:  Right, right.

Kelly:   And obviously there are hundreds and hundreds of firms in our country, but what you’re saying is there’s a larger impact here?

Mary Beth:  Well uh what I have noticed is that um both of these agencies, news releases got significant pickup in the end. I mean these are um, I guess what you would call household name PR firms in the industry. I mean all of us who’ve been in the business for a lot of years, we’d certainly recognize them. So it’s the larger impact on the profession and the fact that so many colleagues, publications, other third parties, even those completely unaffiliated with either agency or any of their clients, they’ve used these news releases and the very specific way this data was you know presented in the public domain. In order just to regurgitate this guidance in the trade press and back to I mean countless corporate decision makers. You know the clients who did not look at the data as closely as I did, but just took the news releases on face value as fact.

Kelly:   That’s the word of God from a trustworthy source.

Mary Beth:  Yeah, yeah.

Kelly:   So, well I welcome both agencies to chime in further here too.

Mary Beth:  Yeah.

Kelly:   I really hope that they will. Um obviously data and investing in research is expensive and it’s important that it’s reported accurately. So let’s take a look at where corporate social messaging can work well.

Mary Beth:  Sure, yeah.

Kelly:   Corporate social activism wrong. Is it just plain wrong? Is it problematic all the time?

Mary Beth:  Well, I mean well I think it’s like everything else. It’s all in the execution. I mean um in the other article that I wrote for the USA Today Tennessee Network that had to do with this topic, um I did mention that this type of technique in reaching audiences and trying to achieve real personal connection with people from a real passion and heart driven heartstrings centered approach really springs from the more traditional mode of strategic charitable giving, community relations.

Mary Beth:  Um anything that a client can do that is action-based that puts others interests first-

Kelly:   That’s not self-serving.

Mary Beth:  Exactly, exactly. And that’s where this activism piece has really morphed into something. As you mentioned earlier, placing the brand as the hero instead of the community, the other you know the other parties central to their stakeholder groups and that’s a big issue. And number one, you’ve got to know your stakeholders. You’ve got to know what is going to resonate with them. You know we talked in a couple of episodes ago about the Nike um example and how that strategy has borne out apparently well on the financial side for them, that they embraced a very, what many would consider a fairly risky strategy and it is working for them. But you do have to know your stakeholders and you have to realize I mean that if you’re going to go down a very politically divisive road, you have to know that you may be turning off huge swats of current or potential customers for life.

Kelly:   And it’s often hard to quantify who you’re turning off.

Mary Beth:  Right.

Kelly:   Because it goes back to that rule of if somebody approves of something or they have a positive experience, they’re going to tell three or four people. If they have a negative opinion,

Mary Beth:  Yes.

Kelly:   They’re just going to shut it down and push it away and go away. And you may never even know who you’ve turned off.

Mary Beth:  Well but, and of course social media has turned so much of that on its head because so many consumers just, they take great delight in letting-

Kelly:   Roasting.

Mary Beth:  Yeah, letting you know if you’ve made them unhappy. So it goes into, I think part of the reason that the Nike thing bugs me so much apart from, you know, I do have political views that are what they are, but I embrace this idea of respecting people’s diverse ideologies and viewpoints. Um to me, it’s every bit as important as respecting other demographic you know characteristics of an audience. And um right now we’re kind of in this PR diversity hashtag PR diversity month in the public relations profession. There is often an activism message in the PR profession, but it’s now starting to ring hollow to me because so little has actually evolved or progressed. I mean to me diversity needs to be more than just an empty message or just something that is an idea. It needs to be something that’s substantive.

Kelly:   Not a box that you check for the sake of checking.

Mary Beth:  Exactly, exactly. And it’s like everything else that we’ve talked about, um for example, you know, marketing to women in an authentic way, uh just to insult people’s intelligence and just talk about it in theoretical terms, but failing to execute to that in a definitive and substantive way. It’s like diversity in name only, you know?

Kelly:   Yeah.

Mary Beth:  And that’s a problem.

Kelly:   So we had some recent news here in Knoxville. It was centered around UT Knoxville and we’ve all seen it, the little boy who was bullied.

Mary Beth:  Right. Right.

Kelly:   And he went to school and it was wear your favorite college team day shirt, your favorite college team shirt. And he wanted to wear a Tennessee shirt, but he didn’t have one,

Mary Beth:  Right.

Kelly:   Couldn’t afford one. So he wore an orange shirt and then he wrote a UT on a piece of paper

Mary Beth: Right.

Kelly:   And he taped it onto his shirt.

Mary Beth:  That was, gosh, that was such a heartwarming-

Kelly:   That was. And he got bullied for it.

Mary Beth:  Yeah, uh, yeah.

Kelly:   So UT actually, I love what they did. They took a stand against it. Um but it wasn’t political. You know this was not political. They um sent packages to the school with all kinds of UT swag and notes from athletes and they decided to go ahead and print the shirt. So at first only several hundred of the shirts were ordered and now over a hundred thousand have been ordered.

Mary Beth:  That is just amazing.

Kelly:   And the proceeds are going to benefit Stomp Out Bullying. I think that’s a really good example of how a brand can take a non-self serving semi activists, you know we’re against bullying,

Mary Beth:  Right.

Kelly:   But we’re going to just lift this person up.

Mary Beth:  Right.

Kelly:   And in the meantime it lifted up the whole UT brand and the whole UT experience.

Mary Beth:  Yeah I mean I will tell you, and of course of being an alumnus of UT um and I’ve had a lot to say over the years about various things the university has done, but I have to say that that example has to be one of the biggest PR wins for them that I’ve ever seen.

Kelly:   Ever seen.

Mary Beth:  Because of the grand scale. I mean it was on major network news,

Kelly:   Right.

Mary Beth:  It was picked up all over creation and for good reason. I mean it was a very uplifting and authentic story.

Kelly:   It was authentic.

Mary Beth:  It was not contrived. It was I mean it was just beautifully executed in terms of not only the university putting forth a message that is so relevant in today’s society and culture right now because there’s so much negativity out there. But they even gave the student a scholarship.

Kelly:   Right, yeah.

Mary Beth:  Um I think they, yes, they had um basically circled back around after the initial wave of publicity about them producing the shirt based on his design came out. They offered him um a full ride scholarship. And I don’t think that they’ve ever even disclosed who the student is or what his name is.

Kelly:   No.

Mary Beth:  You haven’t seen that in the news, which I kind of liked the aspect of letting that you know boy be able to keep his privacy and the family privacy and it not become, that was not part of it to your earlier point or about um not exploiting kids as part of the story.

Kelly:   Right, exactly. Um those are the kinds of opportunities brands need to be on the lookout for.

Mary Beth:  Right.

Kelly:   Just when can we insert ourselves into a conversation that is not too controversial. I think everybody will agree that bullying is a bad thing and most people are against it.

Mary Beth:  Of course. Of course.

Kelly:   Um and then how can we do something to lift others up and not be self-serving? And that’s when you’re going to get really true, authentic, good press. And not only that, you’re going to make people feel something

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm.

Kelly:   And when somebody feels something-

Mary Beth:  It’s real.

Kelly:   And it brings out emotion. It just attaches you to that brand in a way that nothing else can do. And certainly polarizing messaging and activism, um there’s such a risk of bringing up the negative feelings.

Mary Beth:  Mmhmm. Right.

Kelly:   And so just as a positive feeling can attach you to a brand, the negative is going to make you never even look twice at that brand again. So

Mary Beth:  Yeah. You know, I will say too, that I think the biggest hurdle for most brands and being able to execute to that kind of in the moment strategy is their ability to be in the moment. And to be ready to execute.

Kelly:   To have the time.

Mary Beth:  I mean, we’re very often talking about 24 hour time horizon windows to not only communicate a message, but backing up from that, having made an executive decision to do something, I mean for the university to have made the decision, we are going to you know commit some resources here to get an initial run of tee shirts done. We’re going to commit the staff resources to get this publicized out, to support this young man. Um all of that had to happen in a real time kind of scenario. It meant boots on the ground with staff and with their team. Really hats off to the executive management at UT for having been very quick um in response

Kelly:   I agree.

Mary Beth:  And the communications team as well. Um several of whom are my past employees.

Kelly:   I know.

Mary Beth:  Full disclosure.

Kelly:   Well anyway, um I guess the moral of the story here with this episode is if Mary Beth emails you, you might want to respond. She emails you and asks you a question, otherwise um you may have a whole episode about whatever it is you didn’t respond to.

Mary Beth:  Yeah, we’ll see what kind of a feedback we get from this uh from this episode here. It will be um interesting to see um, but yeah, I mean kudos to agency B on that account. They were very responsive to me um and uh told me I hadn’t misinterpreted anything.

Kelly:   Well that’s good to know. So to our listeners, don’t forget to follow the Ms. InterPReted podcast on social media. We’ll respond to your questions and comments. So please post them using the hashtag Ms. InterPReted. That’s Ms. InterPReted and for visibility sake capitalize the PR. You can also follow me on Twitter @KDFletcher as in Kelly Dawn as well as @FletcherPR. And you can follow Mary Beth West @MaryBethWest. Our thanks to our sound engineer, Chris Hill of Knoxville based HumblePod. You can find him at Join us next week when we welcome Mark Weaver from Radio Systems Corporation to talk about the power, credibility and costs of influencer marketing. Until then.

Speaker 1:  Thanks for joining us on Ms. InterPReted, public relations demystified. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We’ll see you next time.