On 'explosive' Roe v. Wade, PR experts tell businesses to think hard before weighing in
"Think before you post" is excellent advice for anyone in the social media age.
For some companies, commenting on hot-topic issues could mean the difference between conducting business as normal and alienating loyal customers – not to mention the costs of extinguishing a public relations firestorm.
Knee-jerk reactions to societal issues happen all the time in the business world, whether the commentary is related to dirty politics, clean energy or any number of divisive topics.
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But weighing in on Roe v. Wade is another animal entirely, especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the landmark abortion rights ruling.And there are many possible reasons why consumers noticed a lack of commentary from the corporate world and their favorite Tennessee businesses following the leaked document indicating this decision could be coming.
"It is so personal. It's so intimate," said Mary Beth West, an East Tennessee public relations specialist and senior strategist for Knoxville-based Fletcher Marketing PR. "I hate to use the word incendiary kind of issue, but it is an explosive issue."
West, who spoke with Knox News exclusively from her professional perspective prior to the Supreme Court's decision, is co-chair of the global ethics council for the London-based Public Relations and Communications Association. With more than 30 years in the industry, she believes "context matters" when commenting on any issue, especially something as divisive as Roe v. Wade.
"That's a risk," West said. "And if a company is going to choose to do that, they need to put thought into, 'What's the strategy behind why we are issuing a comment on this?'"
Companies avoid Roe v. Wade stances
Yelp and Levi Strauss are among a handful of national brands that have issued statements responding to the leaked draft decision. While companies have been far more willing to comment on issues involving diversity and inclusion in recent years, West said, those types of issues are far more "evergreen."
University of Tennessee at Knoxville assistant professor Derrick Holland, who works in the Tombras School of Advertising & Public Relations, pointed to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a topic that's easier for companies to comment on simply because being against war is "in a way, a no-brainer."
Roe v. Wade, on the other hand, lands on any number of issues that create heated debate alone, much less in combination, including sex, women's rights, religion, family issues and health care.
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"It's something that touches everybody's lives whether they realize it or not," West said.
And that's a major part of the problem, said Holland, who specializes in how organizations' transparency through public relations impacts perceptions related to health and the environment.
In a historically divisive time for the United States, West said, commenting on an issue like Roe v. Wade has the potential to turn away half of your customers.
Sixty-one percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to Pew Research Center, which compiles statistics for almost any political and societal topic imaginable.
Businesses should consider whether these issues directly relate to their product or service before issuing a statement, the experts said.
"There are so many issues out there," West said. "If a company went and took the stance that we're going to draw a line in the sand on every major issue that comes to the floor in society, they would be doing nothing but crafting and issuing statements and not getting their business taken care of.
"I think some people lose sight of that."
Expectation to comment is 'overblown'
West believes there's an "overblown" idea that customers expect businesses to provide quick commentary on hot-topic issues.
While some data suggests people on the left side of the political spectrum desire this far more than people on the right, she said, businesses should always beware of any well-organized "vocal minority" that can create an illusion of protest on social media.
"You have to know your audience," Holland said. "If you're a brewery here, and 75% of your customer base has a certain type of viewpoint (and) you come advocate for the opposite of that, that's probably not going to be economically wise for your company.
"If your internal hierarchy, the employee base are passionate enough about it and they're willing to take that economic hit, that's fine. That happens, and companies have to sit down and have to have those tough conversations."
Nike is a relevant example, Holland said, pointing to the company's campaign in support of ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the national anthem.
The company likely decided it could sustain any blowback because the issue was so important or believed its advocacy would increase its customer base, Holland said.
"A little bit of market research can go a long way," West said. "This is a revolutionary thought: Listen before you speak. Ask some questions that prompt some open-ended responses from your customer base."
Companies are responsible for understanding their customers and whether they even care about social commentary, West said. And customers should understand the role of businesses "to make a profit through an exchange of products and services."
People remember, so be authentic
But let's say that same hypothetical brewery issues a statement that aligns with the 75% of customers who share the same view. Turning off 25% of customers isn't great, either, even if the larger fraction is overjoyed by the commentary.
"They'll just keep purchasing from you as they always did," West said about the supporters. "They're not going to be out there doing you any favors."
The type of messaging could determine whether customers would be so turned off by a statement that they stop supporting a business.
West believes "authenticity" is one of the most important aspects when deciding whether to weigh in, especially in 2022, when nothing from the past ever really goes away.
"What really turns people off is this idea that a statement is being issued merely for window dressing or for posturing purposes ... but their actions as a company are something entirely different," West said. "That's a PR crisis in the making."
In addition to the loss of revenue caused by alienating customers through social commentary, dousing a PR firestorm can hurt business. Campaigns to explain a position can be expensive.
"People have very long memories," West said. "I know plenty of people who categorically will not do business with certain companies because they had a verified racism incident at a store in Albuquerque one time that got play. Or I have friends – the Exxon Valdez disaster 30-something years ago – (who) will not go to an Exxon station to fill up their car."
If a company must comment on an issue, West said, it's important to remember "there's different forms of speech."
"There's literally sending out a statement to the press or putting a statement on your own social media or website," she said. "There's more action-based speech too. Charitable giving."
Part of West's work with Fletcher Marketing PR is to help clients align their values with certain causes and advocacy groups through financial support.
Or, rather than making a definitive stance, companies simply can acknowledge the complexity of the an issue like Roe v. Wade and encourage customers on all sides to engage in civil discussion, she said.
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Not just customers, but employees too
Employee relationships are perhaps equally important, especially with recruitment and retention struggles across the country.
Roughly 4.4 million Americans quit in April, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of job openings decreased to 11.4 million that same month, while the number of hires stayed roughly the same at 6.6 million.
"Nowadays, I think there is just a stronger sentiment among many employees that they want to work for a purpose-driven company," West said. "If an employee wakes up one morning and realizes their company has a stance on an issue that is in diametric opposition to their personal stance or values on something, that can be a deal-breaker for that employee."
While some people believe silence is deafening, the lack of commentary by businesses does not necessarily mean companies are not taking action. Pam Jenkins, chief public affairs officer at Weber Shandwick, told PR Week that companies are first looking at internal operations and messaging.
"Organizations and companies have not just a communications strategy initiative," Holland said. "They have a moral obligation to protect and support their employees' rights and, at the forefront of that is a woman's right to privacy in the doctor's office and the ability to take advantage of healthcare services. ...
"That's going to increase employee trust and camaraderie and, more than that, it's going to solidify the company's moral obligation to their employees."
Tesla's 2021 "Impact Report," released around the same time the U.S. Supreme Court document was leaked, states the company has been covering "travel and lodging support for those who may need to seek healthcare services that are unavailable in their home state" since last year.
Expect responses after court decides
Holland expects companies will issue statements on both sides of the Roe v. Wade debate once a final decision comes down.
This waiting period gives companies time to organize more thoughtful campaigns and strategies while avoiding "the pitfalls of static statements," he said.
Until then, West said, curious customers can always call corporate headquarters if they want to know where a business stands about Roe v. Wade or any particular issue. But she doesn't necessarily buy the "silence is deafening" argument.
She believes the same could be said about any issue – "just go down the list."
"If the Knoxville News Sentinel were going to pull out an issue and really try to explore this matter of should companies speak out or not, this is the one," West said. "Because it is such a passion point for people."
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Abortion and business: When should companies comment on Roe v. Wade?