Brand Citizenship & Corporate Character

There has been no shortage of public debate on volatile citizenship issues this year, from the Supreme Court ruling on Marriage Equality, the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate, or the blow-up of incendiary comments about immigrants by would-be Presidential candidates.

What is a company or brand to do when the public debate and social conversation turns to polarizing subject matter? Who will arbitrate the debate over divisive issues in America’s board rooms? How can a bold brand plant stakes in the ground that are in step modern perspectives?

From a Corporate Brand and Citizenship standpoint, there is very little gray area. Brands must look carefully at their constituencies and assess what is right both for their business and for their key audiences. In many cases today, these audiences are as diverse as the general population; therefore, a modern brand organization can no longer stand for merely what it feels is right, but it must gauge and support what data and public sentiment shows is genuinely in the interest of the greater good.

Today, and into the future, this is the domain of the Chief Communications Officer and their counselors. The CCO’s job is not to take what might be a predisposed position of the CEO or the Board, nor to cave to the demands of activist board members or splinter groups. In fact, a successful CCO boldly arrives at clear consensus positions for what is right for the company, for their brand(s) and for world of the empowered citizens, both locally and globally, where they operate.

There should be no surprises here; nor should the CCO or CEO react to the news of the week as if it were an unforeseeable fire-drill. Instead, CCOs should develop a principled Citizenship statement – that may or may not ever become a shared public document – to affirm their positions and guide their decision making in real time. Much like having a crisis plan or even a social media policy that pre-authorizes real-time responses, the CCO should have a principled road-map that makes decision making against cultural issues clear and easy.

This idea does not preclude a corporate brand from taking nuanced positions on issues. It merely means that on macro issues of global importance like human rights, sustainable development, diversity or even preserving the planet Earth, there should be very little room for debate about where an organization stands.

The CCO must be armed and broadly empowered to make bold choices in real time under this banner of doing the right thing. If she is supported fully by her CEO, and thereby hopefully by management and their Board, then actions like pulling out of deals with Donald Trump’s organizations, approving an advertisement in tasteful support of gay marriage rights, or advocating against hate-driven or racist behavior … these are no-brainers.

Corporate Brand Citizenship need not look and feel all the same. Rather than becoming beige, or worse, driven simply by political correctness, it will be powerful and effective only when genuine, from the inside out: supportive of its employees, customers, communities and other stakeholders. And, if/when one of those stakeholders goes rogue or steps out of bounds of what is genuinely right for the greater good, the brand’s stand must be quick and decisively on the side of its principles. These are the today’s definitive brand moments.

Is your brand ready?

Author’s Note: This article was written on July 16, 2015. Since then, our issues around citizenship have changed dramatically and the stakes have grown even higher. We have endured an escalation of domestic and international terrorism, weathered issues around gun control, expressed divergent perspectives on human rights, and endured heinous attacks on citizens and crimes against law enforcement. We are also embroiled in an unprecedented negative and volatile Presidential election cycle. Despite all that, my advice to communications professionals remains the same.
Daryl McCullough
About the author: 

Daryl McCullough is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at Citizen Relations (Formerly formerly Citizen Paine / PainePR). Citizen is a global consumer agency, with 9 locations around the world, working with Fortune 500 and major world-wide brands, and Daryl has been an executive with the firm for more than 23 years.  Mr. McCullough has his Master’s degree from the University of Southern California.  Follow him on Twitter.