Politically Correct Days are Over for Brands

Team meeting

Politically Correct Days are Over for Brands

Companies have increasingly felt pressure from younger consumers to take a stance on hot topics. Millennials and Gen Zers have been shown to support brands whose values align with theirs more than other demographics. Corporate social responsibility is a priority for audiences today and impacts consumer decisions.

It’s no surprise, given that Millennials are the largest demographic in the workplace, that many organizations — particularly in the technology sector — have felt increasing pressure from employees to state values and take stances. If someone wants to feel aligned with the company they buy from, they certainly desire the same alignment with the one that employs them. This presents a new challenge for CEOs that involves ethics, strategic decision making and yes, PR.

Team meeting

High-profile examples

Google recently decided not to renew its contract with the Pentagon to help analyze drone imagery after more than 4,600 employees signed a petition. Company executives said Google’s technology was not used for violent tasks, but employees felt differently about helping to make drone images more accurate. Some employees resigned. There was even talk about a public rally in San Francisco — far from the chic and comfortable work environment most tech companies try to portray.

In June, more than 100 Microsoft employees wrote a letter demanding Microsoft’s contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to process data and artificial intelligence be canceled. Microsoft wrote a blog post about the need to get immigration right and followed up with an email from CEO Satya Nadella detailing how the technologies provided by Microsoft are being used.

Following ACLU criticism and recent border policies, Amazon employees have asked Jeff Bezos to stop selling facial recognition service Rekognition to law enforcement. Amazon has yet to comment.

Finally, more than 650 Salesforce employees penned a letter to Marc Benioff about their discomfort with the Salesforce and U.S. Customs and Border Protection contract, after it was revealed that immigrant children were being separated from their parents at the border. Benioff responded that the company will not reconsider the contract and took a clear stance against the border policy, saying he has “financially supported legal groups helping families at the border” and written to the White House. COO Keith Block also tweeted that Salesforce would donate $1 million to organizations supporting separated families.

What to do

It’s clear from the steady and recent spate of examples that brands cannot ignore the voices of their employees and action needs to be taken, whether it is as simple as commenting or as drastic as canceling a contract.

1. Establish clear messages upfront

When Microsoft first announced its ties to ICE in January, the company’s blog post said ICE was “implementing transformative technologies for homeland security and public safety, and [Microsoft is] proud to support this work with our mission-critical cloud.” Microsoft also said it was providing deep learning to help with facial recognition.

After employee furor about government contracts, Microsoft’s CEO sent an email to employees responding to family separations at the border, he called the policy “cruel and abusive” and said Microsoft was only “supporting legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads.” Jason Zander, vice president of Azure, wrote to employees “we are not doing anything with AI, Cognitive Services, or facial recognition.” These are quite different attitudes from the initial announcement, and it causes confusion at best, and a loss of credibility at worst.

2. Establish notification systems

Between social media networks and company social pages (whether it’s Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Facebook or internal networks), it has never been easier for employees to express opinions. Large companies today even embrace it. It’s important to monitor and address the opinions before the situation gets out of hand and leaked to the media. Much of the initial sentiment of unhappiness with contracts could probably have been seen on social media or company boards before a letter to the CEO was ever written. Everyone wants to be heard and feel opinions are valued.

3. Respond quickly and decisively

In a large company with thousands of employees, there is plenty of room for rumors and speculation. In the time that it took Google to acknowledge the dissent, employees were already resigning.

In contrast, a Salesforce spokesperson promptly said, “One of the greatest things about being part of the Salesforce family is that we proudly foster an open exchange of ideas and dialogue. We’re proud of our employees for being passionate and vocal, and will continue the conversation on this and other important matters.” This comment may not hold a decision, stance or resolution, but it acknowledges the issue.

4. Continue to assess the situation and be true to your brand’s core

Google was blasted in an op-ed by Michael Bloomberg for its decision not to renew, calling it “a defeat for U.S. national security, patriotism, and the cause of limiting civilian casualties in war.” But it chose to stick with its employees’ values and prevent more resignations. Going forward, they reportedly decided to draft a set of ethical principles about how its technology should be used in the future. This could help them to agree on contracts ahead of time so there is no confusion or disarray about continuing them.

Overall, these incidents may continue as conflict between tech and the government continues. Employees can be a brand’s biggest advocates, and it is crucial for executives to incorporate internal communications as a part of day-to-day business. Employees want to know if the technology they are working on is helping or hurting the world, and they feel comfortable enough to let everyone know how they feel about it.

Alexia Schmidt is an intern at Gravitate PR, majoring in Public Relations and simultaneously pursuing a Master of Science in Management degree at the University of Florida.

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