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 Public relations, polarization, and corporate activism in 2022

Public relations, polarization, and corporate activism in 2022

May 20, 2022

A new survey finds more than three-fourths of public relations professionals find polarization a challenge to their organizations. Social media is only increasing the divide with algorithmic amplification of extremes in debate. Some companies are expressly forbidding discussion of polarizing topics. And yet 73% of PR pros predict they will need to increase their engagement with social issues in 2022.

There’s no two ways about it: PR departments need to be prepared.

Every year, the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Center for Public Relations conducts a survey to research trends that are shaping professional communications. This year, the center investigated corporate activism, reasoning that “societal discord has become a significant risk factor for global business, posing a threat to corporate reputation, employee recruitment, and organizational morale.” In response to this climate, some business leaders are engaging “with controversial topics outside of their normal comfort zones,” which obviously impacts brand communications and public relations.

Growing PR concerns

USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations 2022 Global Communications Report: The Future of Corporate Activism aggregated responses from 1,600 communication professionals, journalists, educators, and university students pursuing communications degrees, surveyed between January 4 and February 4 this year, to explore what’s taking place at the confluence of corporate activism and communications.

The results provide a snapshot of corporate activism challenges and opportunities at present. Of the professional communicators surveyed:

  • 93% are spending more time navigating a growing list of complex societal topics
  • 77% believe polarization is a challenge to their organizations
  • 73% predict they will increase their engagement with social issues this year

Two polar bears fight over a meal

Polarization is the fly in the ointment for corporate activism in 2022. According to the report, the “main problem with polarization is the risk of alienating people. Studies have shown that employees and customers want companies to speak out on topics they care about, but they may disagree with their stand when they do.”

Of all those surveyed:

  • 75% believe polarization makes it hard to communicate effectively on important issues
  • 75% believe polarization increases the risk of alienating customers
  • 73% believe polarization increases the risk of alienating employees

In ranking what contributes most to the current levels of polarization, survey respondents indicated the top culprits are:

  1. Partisan media outlets
  2. Politicians
  3. Social media platforms

For those of us specializing in tech PR and positive-sum innovation, it is interesting that the report failed to detail algorithmic amplification or the rise of the attention economy in its admittedly broad analysis. Such a perspective might shift social media platforms up to the #1 offender slot, as they tend to be the primary traffic drivers nowadays for both partisan media outlets and political campaigns. Regardless, it’s sadly evident that financial incentives for promoting outrage and increasing polarization remain strong among all three. That taints the public forum, putting businesses and their communications teams in a bit of a bind.

Balancing the communications scales

On a hopeful note, the report found that a solid majority of respondents (67%) see business as a potential cure to the curse of polarization, believing that “business has a rational voice that can communicate with the public on sensitive topics.” Furthermore,

  • 83% believe business has a powerful platform it can use to speak from on important issues
  • 82% believe business has a vested interest in maintaining a cohesive/harmonious society
  • 78% believe business has a responsibility to support causes and speak out on issues that align with their brand purpose/mission

Far from shying away from corporate activism and public engagement, a whopping 85% of respondents believe the number of businesses who advocate for a cause will increase in the next five years.

We tend to agree with this assessment. At Sterling Communications, we’ve always believed that it’s important to “stand up, stand out, and stand for something.” We also believe this duty can be performed artfully to drive both societal progress and business success by bringing people together instead of driving them apart, elevating constructive conversation, contributing to the expansion of human knowledge, and accelerating the flow of useful information.

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