Does political activism have a place in corporate social responsibility?

Mary Ellen Smith

Global politics undoubtedly has been turbulent. Some attribute it to heightened polarization across a range of issues. As the political divide widens and political norms continue to be broken, corporations are taking up issues previously considered off-limits.

After the US President placed an executive order barring refugees from entering the US, Starbucks responded by announcing the company’s plan to hire 10,000 refugees globally in the next five years. While Starbucks experienced some backlash for delving into political territory, to the surprise of many, there were no negative impacts on sales performance.

Starbucks is not alone in approaching contentious issues. Other companies like Kellogg and New Balance recently attracted both positive and negative media attention for conveying political opinions. Yet heightened attention has not withheld companies from taking a political stance. More than 1,000 companies publically backed the Paris Agreement despite US pullback. Undeterred, Starbucks recently sponsored a Snapchat filter encouraging millennials to sign up to vote in the UK election.

What is the value in engaging in more controversial issues when it is likely there will be some adverse response?

These companies know there are additive long-term benefits:

1) Increased employee engagement: Employees want to work for a socially relevant company, which is directly linked to the pulse of political issues. A recent survey found that 57 percent of employees feel corporate America needs to play a more active role in addressing important societal issues.

2) Playing out purpose:  Beyond mission and values, having a company purpose is increasingly accepted as vital for success. Starbucks is validating its company purpose through political activism.

3) Building authenticity: Authenticity is increasingly important for business continuity and brand differentiation. In a recent study, a majority of respondents (60 percent) said knowing what a company stands for is much more important in choosing a corporate partner than whether it is innovative. Authenticity is transparency in walking the talk.

Does political activism have a place in corporate social responsibility? The short answer is yes. However, it is up to each company to decide their degree of involvement, taking into consideration their unique business factors and appetite for publicity.

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