The question of whether corporations and CEOs should get involved in high-profile public issues is hardly new. But it vaulted into prominence last month when Brunei introduced new laws which would allow gay men and adulterers to be stoned to death.
The was a predictable global outcry, led by human rights groups and celebrities such as Elton John, George Clooney and Ellen DeGeneres.
And while the celebrities called for a boycott on the nine hotels around the world owned by the mega-rich Sultan, the move by Brunei also posed an important challenge for governments and companies with links to the tiny Asian Sultanate.
One company stepping out in front was global travel agency STA Travel which stopped selling flights on Royal Brunei Airlines, and not only refunded tickets but also decided to absorb cancellation fees imposed by the airline. STA told me they believed Brunei’s actions were in contravention of human rights, and that the new laws posed a direct safety risk to their customers, as they also apply to passengers on Brunei-registered ships and aircraft.
Meantime the Queensland Government axed plans for a partnership with Royal Brunei Airlines; major companies such as Deutsche Bank banned their staff from staying in Brunei-owned properties; and a string of British organisations confirmed they will not be holding events at the Sultan’s Dorchester Hotel, including the TV Choice Awards.
|In the face of international criticism, Sultan Bolkiah announced last week they will not enforce the death penalty for homosexual sex (though of course it remains punishable by imprisonment).
However, the case highlights once again whether companies and brands should take a stand on political and social issues. As British brand consultant Steven Strickland told PR News: “It shouldn’t take George Clooney to prompt people into action.”
There is a large and growing body of research which says the public want companies and brands to speak up about social issues. For instance, the Edelman Earned Brand Report for 2018 shows that 64% of consumers worldwide are “belief driven buyers,” up from 51% the previous year.
As a result, big brands are increasingly taking notice. Just in the last month we have seen Cadbury Australia launch it’s “Symbol for All” campaign against racism and intolerance, and Converse reap praise for its new transgender-themed sneakers as part of its Pride Collection.
Yet it has to be clearly understood that corporate activism is not without risk. A recent YouGov study in the United States showed that while more than half of millennials supported brands taking a stance on social issues, 59% of adults said they would boycott a brand if they disagreed with its public position on a particular issue.
Look no further than Australian brewer Coopers, whose CEO was forced to apologise in 2017 for a “light-hearted” YouTube video debate on same-sex marriage linking his beer to a religious group known for its opposition. Facing a threatened boycott, MD Tim Cooper asked for the video to be withdrawn and publicly stated his company’s support for marriage equality.
Most importantly, when your organisation takes a stand on a high-profile controversy it should be aligned with your values and operations, and hopefully with the values of your stakeholders. You need to do it for the right reasons, and you need to understand that a social issue at one level can easily risk creating a business issue for the organisation as a whole.