These companies have been learning a hard lesson that, when it comes to social issues, having big aspirations about making the world a better place is simply not enough. There’s a real need to go beyond talk, and deliver tangible and relevant positive impact. Companies that get this wrong? They’d better get ready for intense media scrutiny, loss of brand value and reputation, and diminished license to operate.
The most unfortunate part about corporate failures like these is that they’re mostly avoidable. Too many companies today are falling into a social impact trap. Whether dizzy with do-gooder excitement about making the world a better place, or cynically using corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a performance enhancing PR drug, these companies are guilty of what I call the Three Deadly Sins of Social Impact: Ignorance, Arrogance, and Good Intentions.
To start with, companies with social impact aspirations must get a fast grip on the reality of today’s complex issues landscape. We live in a time of accelerating hypersensitivity to social issues that’s becoming intrinsic to our 24-7, social media-fueled lives. In just the past week alone, the furor over #IndianaRFRA and GLBT issues erupted into a national event, #TrevorNoah’s appointment to the Daily Show instantly triggered criticism for his insensitivity to women and Jews…and all this on top of an ongoing #Ferguson and #HandsUpDontShoot crisis around longstanding issues of race and inequality in America that just won’t go away….
Starbucks and Uber are cautionary examples about the perils of navigating this chaotic landscape. The furor over Starbucks’ #RaceTogether showed exactly what big aspirations—without a well-thought out strategy will get you: A dizzyingly fast ride to a social-media fueled PR disaster. Starbucks’ lofty hopes (“…an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time.") quickly got ground into reality when it became clear that the company had no idea how to productively engage people on the complex and challenging issue of race. Employees weren’t trained, customers weren’t comfortable with having race relations foisted on them with their morning lattes, and there was little clarity about what in the world was supposed to happen next.
Starbucks has an inspiring appetite for activism, a huge brand platform and amazing reach that can be powerfully leveraged to both impact social issues and build brand relevance. But this can’t happen when ignorance about the complex reality of social issues, together with an exaggerated self-understanding of the brand’s capabilities as a social change agent (Call this arrogance), forces a hasty, flat-footed, and brand-destructive retreat.
On to Uber, a brand that many of us love to use—and increasingly, to hate. Despite stunning business success, the company is a self-inflicted PR train wreck. The rapid collapse of its high-profile partnership with UN Women to create a million new jobs for women was the latest in a long series of blunders. These include offensive statements by company leadership, controversy about its business practices, and deep concerns about its attitudes towards passenger and driver safety and privacy—especially women’s. After only three days, Uber’s million jobs effort hit a wall, derailed by protests and backlash that led to public backtracking from UN Women. Why? Because Uber is not only seen by many stakeholders as hostile to women, but also because women’s experts and advocates viewed the effort (a million potentially unsafe, contractor-type jobs, without benefits, insurance or the right to organize) as bad for women. Ignorance, arrogance and good intentions strike again (Although many questioned any good intent here, judging this a shameless PR play). As of today, although still prominently featured on Uber’s website, the future of this effort is unclear.
It’s really not that complicated, people. To avoid problems like these and unlock social impact success, companies must adopt four fundamental principles:
Embrace Humility: Bold, ambitious goals, intolerance for the status quo, and a results-driven business mindset are all great (and can be valuable when tackling complex social challenges), but too many companies lack humility when it comes to social impact. They tend to underestimate the difficulty of addressing entrenched issues, and overestimate their own capabilities, expertise and license to operate. Case in point: Selling coffee doesn’t necessarily equip you to tackle one of the most entrenched and divisive issues of our time.
Cultivate Self-Awareness: Many companies are often quick to latch onto a hot issue or jump towards solutions without pausing to look in the mirror first and understand their own impact. Even social impact hero brands like TOMS have struggled with this. Caught by surprise when their donations of shoes to needy communities caused a major outcry because they were putting local shoe manufacturers out of work, TOMS now sources one-third of shoes in regions where they give. In Uber’s case, its track record of challenges with women’s issues was well known. Even a cursory analysis of issues material to their business would have flagged the problems that led to the immediate and embarrassing collapse of its million jobs initiative.
Engage Key Stakeholders: Particularly when it comes to entrenched social issues, it’s likely that there are many stakeholders with different needs and interests, as well as existing organizations working to solve tough challenges. Too many companies bypass the complex necessities of engaging these stakeholders, dismiss the work of nonprofits and other organizations and try to go it alone. Sooner or later, they realize that meaningful progress requires broad collaboration and participation.
Deliver Impact: Social change requires not just talking, but actually doing. Caring enough to provoke a dialogue, although in many cases an important, positive, first step, is no substitute for actually delivering real impact. Here’s where companies really could stand to learn a thing or two from high-performing nonprofits, developing a more disciplined focus on operating efficiency for their social impact efforts, and operationalizing a well thought out theory of social change.
If all this seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But then again, so is scrambling to rebuild brand and reputation after self-inflicted PR disasters. Companies simply must take a longer, more strategic view, investing time, energy and resources into developing a clear vision, strategy and plan for delivering social impact. All while avoiding the temptation of the Three Deadly Sins….