“We live in extraordinary times,” Andy Whitehouse said. “Social issues are a huge concern for most of us,” and “it’s important that we, as communicators, get our arms around these topics.”
Whitehouse, founder and managing partner of Copperfield Advisory, a New York-based boutique consulting firm for brand reputation, was a guest speaker for PRSA Storytellers on May 11, “Lessons From Political Communications for Corporate Comms Professionals.”
“Companies, historically, have been quite nervous about getting into political communications,” Whitehouse told John Elsasser, editor-in-chief of PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics. But for organizations today, taking stances on hot-button social and political issues has become “less and less optional,” Whitehouse said. At the same time, the risks of angering and alienating customers by choosing sides in conflicts over values “haven’t gone away.”
Earlier in his career, Whitehouse was chief communications officer at IBM and a policymaker for the U.K. government. He now lectures at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies.
These days, students, employees, investors and the media expect companies to “have a point of view on the difficult topics of the day… and to behave in a certain way,” he said. “Communicators find themselves in the middle.”
By commenting on topics that inflame strong emotions, companies “are not going to please everybody,” he said. “You might upset a large part of your workforce.”
There is now “intense polarization and intense politicization of life,” Whitehouse said. “People think about their identities in political terms” and express those beliefs through their hobbies, the culture they consume and the brands they buy.
Even as social media has empowered citizens to publicly express their political opinions, “technology has made people quite fearful of speaking out on political issues that others might disagree with,” Whitehouse said. “People generally don’t want to talk about politics now. And companies have the same fear.”
On social media, where algorithms reward posts that are already receiving attention, ad hominem messages can override reason and civility. Social media often misleads people into believing exaggerations, misrepresentations and falsehoods, riling users up so they engage with the content.
For better or worse, people respond to stories that move them emotionally. The tightrope for communicators might involve balancing the truth with how it affects people’s lives, thereby creating stories that are accurate but also reach audiences on an emotional level.
“What voters respond to most is emotional storytelling from candidates,” Whitehouse said. “We need to think more about how we use emotional storytelling” in communications. “It always trumps the rational argument.”
When to speak up?
For businesses and communicators pondering whether to take a public position on a sensitive topic, “what matters most is the degree to which the organization has thought things through in advance and is prepared to take a position on the big issues of the day,” Whitehouse said.
A member of the audience asked whether organizations should have different spokespeople, representing diverse political viewpoints, who can communicate nuanced positions with various groups of the company’s constituents — rather than support one side and alienate the other.
Whitehouse cautioned that such an approach could invite accusations that the organization is inconsistent or inauthentic. In formulating public statements on divisive political and social topics, he said, businesses should go where their values take them.