Should Corporate Comms Engage in Social Issues?

Employees, customers and investors increasingly expect organizations to take a stand on contentious social or political issues, so communications leaders must navigate how and when to engage.

Does a company’s stance on a religious or political issue change how you feel and interact with it? Companies are increasingly taking public stance on polarizing issues — for example, Chick-fil-A’s religious views or the Nike campaign supporting Colin Kaepernick and social inequality or Iceland Foods speaking out against the use of palm oil and the resulting deforestation. And it’s happening around the globe.

So when is it a good time to weigh in? On what issues should your organization make statements? Gartner surveyed over 30,000 employees, investors, customers and community members around the globe to understand how perception and behavior is impacted by company involvement in societal issues.

If companies can use the right issues, they have the opportunity to differentiate their company — in a good way

“These are the types of decisions that communications leaders will have to make more and more often,” says Rick DeLisi, VP, Advisory, Gartner. “Trends occurring in the social world provide companies an opportunity to differentiate themselves.”

Your Stakeholders Expect You to Take a Stand

Most stakeholders, especially employees, respond positively to organizations that engage on social issues.

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A chance to stand out

Customers, employees and the general population have high expectations for companies to participate in societal issues. In fact, 70% of employees agree companies must work to address society’s challenges.

Like Nike or Chick-fil-A, other companies routinely speak out, but not all are getting the same level of attention. When surveyed, 90% of participants couldn’t recall actions or statements from a company or CEO on a social or political issue. If companies can use the right issues, they have the opportunity to differentiate their company — in a good way.

When to get involved

Unlike crisis and issues management, which aim to minimize negativity and damage, communications leaders have a choice as to when or how they get involved. To help determine when to engage in societal issue engagement, leaders should aim to generate positive response while minimizing the amount of negative responses.

Organizations should use their identity or direction, what Gartner refers to as their “north star,” as the litmus test for engaging in contentious issues. The north star enables companies to weigh their options and make decisions on when to engage. Company identity, mission statement, purpose, culture, brand, history and values may help leaders rationalize the company perspective — both public and internally.

While improved opinion is a good outcome, nothing matters more than action or behavior change

But, stakeholders must sincerely and easily identify what the company represents. Simply believing in “do the right thing” isn’t sufficient — it’s not specific enough to have concrete resulting actions and may actually appear inauthentic. Company direction, strategy, goals, priorities and vision can also aid leaders in understanding when they should engage.

How to get involved

Gartner research found that words are as strong as actions — delivering the same positive response rate. Even when a company is not prepared to take action on an issue, communications can still drive supportive audience behaviors by engaging in societal issues. Again, stakeholders respond similarly to messages originating from the CEO or the company. This is good news for communicators, as they can generate positive responses regardless of CEO involvement.

When crafting messaging, Gartner found that these characteristics have the biggest impact on audience responses:

  • Consistency with company values
  • Make a difference on the issues
  • Authenticity
  • Consistency with business goals

The majority of customers react positively

The good news is that a majority of customers, 70%, had a better opinion when they heard a company speak out or take action on a social issue. “While improved opinion is a good outcome, nothing matters more than action or behavior change,” says DeLisi.

Gartner research finds that not only do stakeholders respond to a company taking a stance, they respond in a positive manner 3 out of 4 times. This might mean they bought more or less deliberately, they advocated, they joined in on a campaign or perhaps considered joining the company as an employee.  

Further, 54% did something positive to help the company, and only 19% did something negative, in response to a company action or statement.

Gartner Communications Leadership Council members can access the webinar Navigating New Audience Expectations and Reputation: Determining When and How to Engage in Contentious Issues and read the research Navigating New Audience Expectations.


Gartner for HR leaders clients can read How Can an Employer Incentivize Social Responsibility? and watch a webinar on Influential Employment Branding in the Digital Era.

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