The age of the fence-sitter corporation has ended. From food to pharmaceuticals, brands are increasingly forced to speak out — either proactively or reactively — in response to issues they would historically prefer to avoid.
Today, taking a stand on social and political issues is an expectation for consumers and employees. It’s no longer an option to sit back and wait for an issue to blow over. And nowhere is this more obvious than with the NFL.
After President Trump’s comments about national anthem protests by NFL players set off a wave of athlete and team responses, everyone waited — and waited — for the NFL to weigh in.
When it did, the results were underwhelming at best. In his statement, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “The way we reacted today, and this weekend, made me proud. I’m proud of our league.”
Proud of who — players, owners, teams, fans? And for what? What was the NFL really saying? If this is the NFL’s “clap-back” to Trump, where’s the clap?
Ultimately, by trying to straddle the fence, the NFL ended up pleasing no one.
In these situations, we like to follow a simple rule: Never let a good crisis go to waste. In a world where people increasing care as much about what a brand stands for as what it sells and at a time when it’s harder than ever to get people’s attention, brands need to take advantage of these opportunities to tell their story.
At the same time, we empathize with Goodell and communicators for being in a tough place. It’s easy to get these statements and positions wrong. In situations like these, using the right language can be the difference between bolstering your brand’s emotional connection with key audiences and evoking backlash among diverse audience subsets.
It’s not what you say that matters; it’s what your audiences hears. Here are a set of frameworks that assess the need to communicate in a given situation, address the perspectives of multiple audiences, and suggest starting points for an authentic yet agreeable position on the issues on which they’re called to weigh in.
In this situation the NFL should:
—Express shared values. “We at the NFL love this country and its symbols, including the flag.”
—Be explicit about your perspective. “It’s because of this patriotism that we support the First Amendment right given to all citizens to express themselves. That includes our fans, politicians and especially our players.”
—Back up your perspective with action. “While we may not always agree with the actions and words of those who have weighed on this topic over the past few days, it is not our place nor our desire to stop them from peaceful expression.”
—Commit to improvement. “In fact, rather than wishing suppress it, we believe we ought to be furthering it. That’s why in the coming weeks we plan to hold meetings between players, police officers, fans and military personnel.”
—State desired outcomes. “In the end, we don’t imagine this dialog will resolve or reconcile the strongly held views on all sides of the issue. But we do believe that conversation about what is an acceptable form of protest — especially from those who feel injustice is taking place and especially from those who serve our country — is ultimately what a strong democracy is all about.
Companies too often focus on the risk of taking a stand. And like the NFL did, miss an opportunity to engage all their audiences in a positive way.