Strategy, Creative

Navigating Social Issues In the Year 2023

In 2023, brands can't afford to stand pat on unfolding societal issues. For those at a crossroads, MERGE offers its expertise in navigating today's polarized environment.


PUBLISHED: 7/19/2023

There is no denying that we are living in tumultuous times with a long list of social issues dividing the country. With the world more interconnected than ever, consumer expectations of corporate America have evolved to where there is pressure like never before on companies and organizations to take a stance on societal issues or political issues, and publicly communicate their positions. Now, social engagement has become material and unavoidable, and the days when companies could opt out or take anemic action on these topics are gone.

This new reality has put organizations in the challenging position of having to balance the desires of multiple audiences with different agendas while trying to grow and/or evolve their businesses.


Examining Real World Examples

Examples of this new reality can be found in a Gallup poll from January 2023, which found Americans are squarely divided about whether organizations should take a public stance on political and social issues, with 48% believing they should and 52% saying they should not. 

However, further complicating matters is the fact that expectations of younger adults are more pronounced than their older counterparts – with 59% of those aged 18 to 29 believing companies should take a public stance on societal issues, compared with 51% of those aged 30 to 44, 41% of those aged 45 to 59, and 43% of those aged 60 and older.

On one side of the spectrum are executives such as Mark Cuban, who recently said companies that “focus on woke politics do so because people want to do business with companies that care about their customers." These organizations are often perceived as more progressive and more in touch with the younger population, and are thus better positioned for the future.

On the other side are activists that feel progressive policies on social issues have gone too far. Such groups have recently mounted successful boycotts against brands such as Bud Light and Target. In the wake of these boycotts, Bud Light’s market share decreased more than 25% and the company lost its standing as number one in American beer sales after it engaged in a campaign with transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney. Target lost more than $15 billion in market cap after it faced a consumer boycott related to its 2023 Pride Collection, which also included images of pentagrams, horned skulls, and satanic references.

In both boycott situations, the organizations’ positions and their prior and subsequent communications ended up alienating both sides of the issues, which further impacted their reputations and exacerbated their problems.

It is safe to say corporations can no longer remain completely silent and stay in the background around societal issues. There is now an expectation that companies take positions and/or have a stance on those issues that most intersect with their businesses and corporate values. 

That said, it is our position that organizations do not have to have a public position on all of the social issues challenging America, rather they should focus on articulating positions on those most salient to their key stakeholders - from their employees to customers to the communities where they do business.

How and When to Take a Stand

We advocate that our clients identify those issues most concerning to their businesses and best aligned with their core values and stated corporate purpose. We then help them to prepare to communicate their positions on those issues. 

The MERGE Public Relations and Communications team helps our clients:

- Identify those issues of critical importance to both internal and external audiences that the company is comfortable speaking to and align them to the organization’s core values and purpose 
- Determine which issues the company or organization should not take a position on and develop a narrative to explain why. There is no expectation that organizations have a position on every social issue.
- Prepare authentic communications responses to explain the organization’s stance on selected issues, create responses to situations (online and offline) when positions are criticized, and identify proof points for how you “walk the talk”
- Facilitate tangible ways for the organization and employees to support company positions on key issues
- Monitor the landscape to regularly assess new issues and stay informed on critical issues. 
- Measure the impact of the organizational positions.

In the end, we encourage organizations to take a stance on the issues most important to their key stakeholders and remember to do so while remembering why they are in business in the first place. 

Then, understanding today’s polarized environment, we advocate organizations prepare careful and measured proactive and reactive communications plans that articulate and defend their positions and then stand by them without wavering. With the world so polarized, this preparation is not only critical to preserve and build reputation, but also protect the bottom line.

For brands and organizations that find themselves in a place of uncertainty when it comes to communicating their stance on unfolding societal issues, MERGE is here to help. Contact our team of PR and communications experts to help better position your business now, and in the future.