Corporate Social Responsibility in a Changing America
By Rachel Kelly
Nowadays, it seems that every brand is marketing its corporate environmental efforts, community outreach programs, and ethically sourced products. This trend parallels the growing public opinion that businesses have a responsibility to the world.
According to an NBC News article by Brianna Steinhilber, young professionals are no longer interested in begrudgingly hitting the time clock and scraping by until the day ends, but instead want to commit to a company that makes a positive change. “They want work with a purpose,” she said.
Today, shoppers also tend to buy from companies with ethical programs that line up with their personal values. Popular apparel company, TOMS, for example, has one of the strongest CSR programs in my opinion. The company’s website highlights several social initiatives, from donating shoes to kids in China to countries to providing clean water in Honduras.
This demand for socially responsible companies have forced companies to adapt to their changing role in the world of business. Consumers and employees alike want to know that the companies they are supporting will make positive contributions to society.
However, it seems that ever since Donald Trump began campaigning for the 2016 Presidential election, blurred lines about the limits of a company’s social output has gotten many top executives into trouble, such as PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, for example. She has been at the receiving end of public outrage a few times this year.
According to an article in Fortune by Beth Kowitt, Nooyi sat on President Trump’s business advisory council, even after widespread dissent towards the President’s comments on the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. “If individual CEOs take action, it’s not good for anybody- then each of us becomes a media story,” Nooyi said.
That issue blew over, but nothing compares to the firestorm that followed Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad. Social media users were quick to express the huge offense the Black Lives Matter movement took to the ad’s closing scene, in which Jenner ended the tension between protesters and police officers by handing a Pepsi to one of the cops.
Pepsi’s choice to use a white model to represent an end to the issue of racial injustice sent Twitter into chaos. Since the issue was overtaking the American media at the time, many expressed extreme pushback due to the perception that Pepsi’s ad was invalidating the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Pepsi has clearly struggled to integrate business with social responsibility, but they are not the only company with this issue. It seems that with every social or political controversy that arises, another company makes headlines for a misguided statement.
As Sapna Maheshwari said in an article from the New York Times, “in today’s political climate, even pizza, bourbon, and coffee can be partisan issues.” She recalled the day that Jim Beam’s Facebook page turned into a political forum when actress Mila Kunis, spokeswoman for the company, joked on “Conan” that she had been donating to Planned Parenthood under Mike Pence’s name for months.
Planned Parenthood adversaries posted the hashtag #BoycottJimBeam, refusing their support for a company whose values did not align with their own.
Taking political stances doesn’t seem to be a safe marketing move, especially in the age of social media, but is there much of a choice? Modern consumers and employees need to know about the people in charge of the companies they support. Otherwise, where is that sense of purpose?
Perhaps the next challenge for marketing and PR departments will be to do the impossible: learn to make social contributions without offending anyone. If there is a place for business in politics, I’d say it is a very fine line to tread.