Corporate advocacy – look before you leap

Like many of you, I’ve been keeping an eye on the USA.  In particular in the lead up to next week’s election.

One of the most interesting aspects of the election race isn’t just the race itself (as entertaining as that is), it’s the commentary and advocacy around the race that’s been fascinating.

This is because there appears to be no middle ground.  Every person who has the conviction to express a public opinion is either in the pro-Trump camp or the anti-Trump camp. (I nearly referred to a ‘pro-Biden’ camp but increasingly this election seems to be a referendum on Trump.)

And most of the commentary I’ve seen has been overwhelmingly framed through the lens of whataboutism.

If you’re not familiar with whataboutism, Merriam-Webster wrote a terrific piece exploring it recently.  They define it as:

Not merely the changing of a subject (“What about the economy?”) to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.”

You see it every moment.  If someone criticises Trump for something, his supporters will respond with an accusation that the other side has done something even worse.

Dan Andrews has polarised
public opinion in Victoria

Most obviously in Australia at the moment is the debate between supporters and detractors of Victorian Premier Dan Andrews over the State’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Andrews’ detractors will accuse him of not being honest over the decision to use private security guards for hotel quarantine.

However, as soon as someone makes this critique (particularly journalists), his supporters will respond with a demand the detractors not ignore the corruption of the Federal Government and demand they immediately start advocating for a Federal ICAC.

There’s no defence, just whataboutism.

So, why does this matter for business? 

It matters because as soon as a business chooses to advocate on a particular topic, rest assured that commentators and the Twitterati will rake over every company position, statement and activity and find a way to discredit you.

A notable example recently was Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in the UK, which back in August tweeted to the UK Home Secretary demanding a more compassionate approach to immigration in the UK.

The company continued this thread by referring to several news articles which purportedly showed that so-called ‘strong borders’ risk lives.

What’s the problem?  Well, other Twitter users soon discovered that Unilever (which owns Ben & Jerry’s) was recently accused of underpaying £550 million in tax in the UK.

Furthermore, three years ago, Ben & Jerry’s itself was taken to court in the USA by migrant workers who complained they were being exploited through underpayment.

Suddenly Ben & Jerry’s PR team was hit by the power of whataboutism.  A potentially noble bit of advocacy suddenly revisited previous PR scandals.

So, if you are a company and contemplating making a stand on an issue or topic – do some due diligence.

Examine your own behaviour.  As someone once said: examine the plank in your own eye before you point out the speck in another’s.

And do some crisis preparation.  Because you can be certain that if you decide to speak up, others will speak back.