Woke capitalism is fast becoming a serious PR challenge.
We should be celebrating diversity in the workplace, but this applies to diversity of thought, opinion, and sense of humour as well.
And we know as much from media training — just because someone with an alternate agenda implies that you’re something that you’re not, you must never accept the implication.
Red Bull recently got put the test.
Red Bull and the leaked joke
At a recent marketing meeting, a Red Bull employee showed a world map cartoon making fun of the stereotypical US-centric (and sometimes ignorant about the importance of other nations) world view.
This happened after an attempt to force the brand’s CSR strategy in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement by circulating an online petition amongst Red Bull employees.
As a result, three high-level executives got fired — loudly accompanied by damaging media insinuations of Red Bull being a racist brand.
Not great from a PR perspective, but anyone who understands business also understands that you can’t have high-level executives going behind the organisation’s back for personal reasons.
Whistleblowing — or acting in bad faith
Make no mistake about it:
Spreading misrepresentations and lobbying against an employer’s business strategy are reasonable grounds for termination — and should not be confused with whistleblowing.
“A whistleblower (also written as whistle-blower or whistle blower) is a person who exposes secretive information or activity within a private or public organization that is deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct. The information of alleged wrongdoing can be classified in many ways: violation of company policy/rules, law, regulation, or threat to public interest/national security, as well as fraud, and corruption.”
Note that misrepresenting the intention of a joke or driving a personal activist agenda doesn’t fall under this definition. Red Bull should be in the clear for firing executives as they were acting in bad faith against the company.
So, what’s the problem?
Businesses aren’t evil by default
There’s an entitled belief held by what seems to be a growing number of people in the communications industry that the PR function should be serving as the organisation’s guilty conscience.
This belief seems to stem from an ideological idea that capitalism is evil and that PR (maybe via CSR?) should balance this inherent malice.
This is an ideological perspective, for sure, not a professional one.
Social activism can be a powerful PR tool, but business must come first.
The PR function has one single purpose and that is to serve a strategic objective. In business, that objective is to generate profit. Such commerce generates tax incomes for the state, jobs for its citizens, and societal progress through innovation.
And this is how PR generates value in society, too.
CSR must be strategic and focused
Red Bull, for instance, has a long history of supporting extreme sports and many of these types of activities have Red Bull to thank for developing into professional elites in their own right — and even Olympic sports in some cases.
Supporting the extreme sports community has been a strategically valuable and focused approach for the brand.
For CSR activities to be serving business objectives, any such activities must be a) strategic and b) focused.
Applying a clear and strategically limited focus on communication isn’t “evil”. And it surely doesn’t imply bigotry or aggression in specific cases where the brand isn’t “being vocal enough”.
‘Business integrity’ is more than just a phrase
Any PR adviser who demands that brands in general are morally responsible to side with loud online lynch mobs and brandcallers have seriously misunderstood the purpose of the PR function — and of business as well.
The solution is business integrity, not giving in to those who wants to control your agenda.
As a champion for focused and strategically limited communication, it’s the job of the PR professional to assist the brand in standing up for itself.
Not to side with online lynch mobs and brandcallers.
Because a brand with integrity isn’t ashamed of being in business. It isn’t ashamed of providing great products and services at great prices. It isn’t ashamed of providing tax income for the state and producing jobs for people. It isn’t ashamed of driving society forward through innovation, financial risk-taking, and hard work.1
In the case of Red Bull, the brand is making strategic and focused CSR contributions to the extreme sports movement.
Red Bull isn’t a cautionary tale; they’re a best practice case study.
Few things in business make me sicker to the stomach than when communicators are shaming innovators, entrepreneurs, and financial risk-takers for not being woke enough.
Woke capitalism is bad capitalism
As PR professionals, we know that the news media sometimes can turn into an unreasonable machine set to destroy businesses and individuals without a fair trial. It’s our job to prepare and protect our brands from such online lynch mobs.
Today, there is a whole new set of lynch mobs to account for:
These online lynch mobs is organising themselves using secret social media groups to drive deplatforming and cancel culture. They use deliberate misinterpretation, calls for boycott, brandcalling, card-stacking, cherry-picking, and guilt-by-silence to coerce brands into submission.
This is feeding into polarisation by creating extremes of identity politics on both sides.
This development is rapidly becoming more challenging to PR than the struggle of adapting to a digital society.
If commercial communications departments accept the woke anti-capitalistic narrative without question, our profession becomes a cancerous and destructive anti-capitalistic force from within.
Piggybacking on political movements can be a viable PR strategy — if such a strategy makes business sense, that is.2
A truly diverse organisation allows for employees of different political persuasions to work side-by-side towards a common business goal.
Providing stable employment and salaries through innovation, collaboration, and hard work will always be the best catalyst for civil society to engage in social causes in their spare time — the way it ought to be.
And while some businesses are out of touch with their communities, Red Bull surely doesn’t fall under that category.
- Actually, I promote a stoic approach to public relations. A business should strive for recognition through dignity, by enduring the path of the obstacle.
- Unfocused corporate cultural appropriation is by no means a “safe” brand strategy, either. Several big-name brands have gotten themselves into serious trouble by shamelessly piggybacking on the social justice agenda.