Public Relations and Activism

Is activism the new black? We are living in a time where activism – social and political – is more prevalent than ever. Fiery speeches and pictures of protests populate our social feeds as often as recipes and puppy videos. In these highly charged times silence is no longer golden, as people engage in public discourse on a wide range of issues from societal to business. The Denver Post called out its hedge fund owners in a scathing editorial published in the paper. CEOs and brands are taking a stand on issues such as climate change, immigration, and gun control. Even public relations professionals are no longer content to stay in the neutral zone with many adding their voices and proudly showing their activism in social media posts.

Activism and business are not necessarily new, but it is more visible thanks to social media.  To some degree, we have always expected companies to speak up about the big issues that affect the people they serve.  However, activism today is more than a prepared statement or a charitable donation. Brands and senior executives are vocalizing their views and values, even if they prove to be polarizing.

Some brands such as Patagonia have always taken a stand on issues that are central to their brand story and identity. They remain on message and true to who they always have been in these times. Their activism may not appeal to the masses but they have been consistent and true to their stated purpose. On the other end of the spectrum, brand activism such as Starbucks #RaceTogether, a campaign that aimed to have baristas engage customers on race relations was a major fail.

As public relations professionals, we are not strangers to the impact of activism, but it may be time to shift our perspective on its role in our work. Researcher and author, Kristin Demetrious argues in Public Relations, Activism, and Social Change, that the job of public relations is not to simply measure and mitigate but be at the center of activism. She writes, “within the domain of public relations there has not been enough reflexivity or deliberation of activism and its relationship to social change.”

While Demetrious’ book addresses activism directed toward brands, her ideas offer a new way at viewing the profession of public relations. Activism can be a powerful part of societal change particularly when it is not simply the voice of entrenched power but the voice of the public. Demetrious posits that innovation and change result from diverse voices and even conflict. We are already seeing brands, sometimes by necessity, becoming more active. There is an opportunity in these times to drive change by not only being vocal but paving the way to those whose voices go unheard.

We’d love to hear from you. Are your clients becoming more vocal about societal issues? How has this changed the work you do? Share in the comments below or on social media using #solopr.

Photo by Christine Janse on Unsplash