PR Wars Podcast: Engaging in social issues

As corporations weigh-in on social issues, communicators are learning to become a company conscience. On today’s PR Wars, we talk with Anthony Hayes, Founder and President of The Hayes Initiative. Learn what you should think about as your company navigates the winds of social change.

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A.I. generated show transcript: 

Show open: “We want the truth.” “We want the truth.” “We want the truth.” “I have news for everybody. Get over it.”

Announcer
It’s time. Welcome to PR Wars coming at you live from Atlanta, Georgia. Now, here is your host… Chris Shigas.

Chris Shigas
Black Lives Matter, Save the planet, End human trafficking. Social issues are thrusting corporations into the media, as the country’s moral compass. And communicators are learning to become a company conscience. Well joining us on PR Wars today, we talk with the Founder and President of The Hayes Initiative. It’s a public affairs and strategic communications firm. It helps leaders at the highest levels, accomplish goals without shying away from making the hard call. Anthony Hayes, thank you for joining us on PR Wars.

Anthony Hayes
Thank you so much for having me. Glad to be here.

Chris Shigas
Companies that are now really more than ever before becoming a moral compass for the nation. Sure, engaging in social issues should accompany engage in social.

Anthony Hayes
So we’re jumping right in? In other words?

Yeah. So listen, I think that, you know, what we have seen is fairly extraordinary. In that I think a lot of to your point, a lot of C suite executives are jumping in more than they probably ever have. My guess is there’s a handful of them and are but that would prefer to not be because I think they would rather sort of like, just be sort of doing business as usual. But I think the world has sort of gotten to a place where we’re having some really needed and necessary conversations, certainly, or if you talked about social justice, if you talk about equality and equity in the workplace, I think those are a lot of very needed conversations in order to break down some of the systemic problems that are fairly obvious. And so how do you do that, in a way that is that is truly authentic to your company, right? Because I think a lot of times, it’s easy to think that you should, it’s easy to lose sight of, I think is probably a better way to say it, of who you serve. Right. And so you have, you know, your investors, you have your you have your internal employees. And then obviously, your customers, right, all those people are living in this time of uncertainty, this time of upheaval, this time of what has been a really, really difficult year beyond just COVID-19 if you’re in America, you know, politically it’s been a very, very difficult for years, and is very divided. And so people, you know, your employees, stakeholders, and customers are all just sort of living in this upheaval. And and they’re looking for any place that can deliver solid, hopeful, clear messaging. And so I think that, you know, with your generally starts with employees who are really pushing the C suite, to comment, right, not to mention, obviously, all of the customers that are also wanting their brands, the reality is customers want their brands to speak up, but then they have to figure out how they’re going to do it in an authentic way. I’m not entirely sure people need to weigh in on everything. Like if it’s not authentic to who you are as a company or you know, there’s not a real reason for you to you really need to ask yourself, what do we get out of Wayne into this and in the one thing I would always advise everybody if you do way into it, you better describe it and talk about talk about it through the values that you live every day versus hopefully you know, listen, if you have had to have a reckoning and you realize you haven’t been living up to the values you wanted to then you better own that and do your man Koba and and then sort of march forward and sometimes it’s easy to see that an issue is relevant to your brand, but sometimes it’s a little bit of a gray area, right? So absolutely look at like the Georgia voting law issue. And delta and Coca Cola weigh in. Well, that makes sense because they’re headquartered in Atlanta. Even if you go to the other side of the aisle, and and look at maybe like a hobby lobby, chick fil a or whatever.

Chris Shigas
my pillow guy is saying, sure, you know, you you have engagement in the this political space? How do you go through figuring out if this is an authentic issue for my brand? And if this makes sense for me to engage?

Anthony Hayes
Yeah, I think first of all, you have to ask yourself why, you know, are you compelled because people are calling you out? Or are you compelled because you want to speak to the values of your company. And so I think obviously, the ideal place would be, if you feel like as a company and the brand that you are and what you deliver into the universe, for whatever reason, to your to your correct point, whether no matter where you fall on the spectrum of, you know, left or right or conservative or liberal, you’re going to speak out, you’re going to frustrate some people when you speak out. And so you better make sure that it is very true to who you are, and why you’re doing it. So you should sort of hopefully have some, the ability to be authentic about your communication, meaning that you have a good track record already. But if you’re being called out for it, you know, we live in a time where it can really get dicey if you don’t sort of handle those kinds of moments carefully. And I think a lot of times when there is a growing and growing cry for a company or an organization or a leader to speak out against something, and then they finally do it, then it seems like well, you only did it, because you’ve got forced to

Chris Shigas
write, it is an issue, right? Like, especially as a communicator, because you have to figure out, Okay, this is how we could respond. And then you have to sell that internally and get these approvals. And you want to be fast. At the same time, maybe in a given issued, all the facts aren’t out yet. Correct. And and then, if you wait too long, with this approval process, then you look like a Johnny come lately, who’s just, you know, doing it for appearance sakes,

Anthony Hayes
yes. 100%. It is a rock and a hard place. For communicators. And in particular, similar to what you were describing as somebody whose job it is to, you know, your phone rings with the CEOs saying, are we speaking out on this or not, you know, or I saw the tweets, what are we doing, and then you have to craft it, you have to put it together, and then you have to move it along. And you have to make sure to your point, you have your facts straight. And if they’re not straight, then you better figure out how to make it clear, they’re not and there’s going to be more to come so that you give yourself room and your organization room because certainly in a crisis situation or something that’s rapidly moving. The reality is, is you need to, you need to acknowledge there’s something that’s going on, you need to acknowledge your values. I’m a big believer in that, because I think a lot of people miss that opportunity.

Chris Shigas
And that’s some work on the front end to do. Right, right. Yeah,

Anthony Hayes
that’s right. When you’re going away and doing all these retreats and thinking about what are we doing for this year as a company, and who are we and what do we believe in and what’s our mission and blah, blah, blah, like, this is the moment and listen, if if 2020 did not prepare every C suite, and every person who’s planning these major businesses who go away, and they think about that, you know, the the the leadership teams go away, and they hunker down to be like, Alright, this is who we are. And this is what we believe in. And, you know, we’re gonna do this business plan. But you know, you can put in, you can put in place actionable things, that sort of speak to these values, so that when you do have to speak about it, you can talk about a program that you genuinely have done for five years, where you help fill in the blank, or you do this, but you know, because I think it does get to the point where, you know, as a member of the LGBTQ community, you know, I certainly have witnessed every year, in June during Pride Month, you know, everything has a rainbow all of a sudden, which is great. And we like that, and I think that that’s good. But at the same time, what else are you doing?

Unknown Speaker
Right?

Anthony Hayes
What else are you doing to actually help your LGBTQ employees get equality?

Chris Shigas
And that issue has come front and center, right? Whether it’s performance activism, or slacktivism are some of the words that are being totally real easy to put out a tweet. But then what are you really doing to create change?

Anthony Hayes
Yeah, I mean, listen, you know, we can go back to you know, George Floyd, I mean, there’s just unfortunately too many too, sort of too many, too many incidents to point two. And then I think you see people who, whether well intentioned or not, or I you know, I’m not going to try to get into sort of like, defining why they did it or But I think there were obvious people who, you know, when you look at their track record, which is really what people are focusing on is, you know, enough about what you say, you know, there’s not a woman in your C suite, where there’s not a black person on your board. You know, your management team is largely white men. And like, no gay people, or no trans people, or, you know, like, you can sort of tell how a company focuses on you know, you’re either you either really are diverse, or you’re not,

Chris Shigas
do we reflect the communities that we’re in?

Anthony Hayes
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right, exactly right.

Chris Shigas
Sometimes there’s pushback, as a communicator, you’re very excited about a certain issue, you think it’s authentic, you have a great message that you want to deliver, and then someone tells you look, I’m afraid it’s a slippery slope. If we put out a message about this, that we’re gonna have to put a message out about that. And then every single social issue that comes out, we’re gonna have to put out a message about how would you answer that that kind of negative voice?

Anthony Hayes
Yeah, I think it’s about you know, there’s always going to be a negative voice in the room, there’s always going to be someone who wants to sort of keep chugging along, and not sort of speak to the values of the organization. And that’s really what we’re talking about, right? And I know I keep harping on that. But it is true when you when you’re making these statements, ideally, it is something that is truly genuine to who your organization is, or how your organization operates, how your leadership team operates. So when that negative person, you know, speaks up, I find it interesting sometimes where I’ve had conversations with clients, about, you know, what, we don’t allow political speech, or signs or certain things that are events. And you know, I’m standing in front of them. And on my lapel, I have a rainbow flag. I’m like, you do allow certain things like so. And chances are most organizations have already spoken out or taken a stand on something that that may have at the time been uncomfortable, but now it’s safe for them to do it. So I think it’s I don’t think every company should speak out about everything, I think everyone can sort of like, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have internal communications, that doesn’t mean that you can’t speak to your employee base or your stakeholders or, you know, or if there is a, you know, you do have a couple of customers or certain things like that doesn’t mean you can’t have individual conversations. But no, maybe you’re not ready to speak out, because maybe you’re not in a good place on this. And you need to get your internal house in order first, and then speak out about it, or some some hybrid of what I’ve sort of described, but I, I think that everybody has to realize that if it’s something that’s truly resonates with who you are as an organization, why would you not?

Chris Shigas
I mean, because you might have, obviously, like big tech companies, these are big companies that can change the world, right? And they’re weighing in on the social issues. And then you have other companies, you mentioned the financial firms, and they have a lot of political clout, and they can help make a difference. And then maybe, you know, you got a company, they make blue jeans. So they may, you know, and it’s like, you know, is it odd sometimes for them to weigh in on these heavy social issues.

Anthony Hayes
Not if that’s who they think they are. And that’s what their customers are, like, you have to if you don’t know who your customers are, and you don’t know, if you don’t have sort of a clear vision and mission for who you are, even if you’re a small company, and what you believe in, that doesn’t mean that even if you have a customer base of 1000, that’s 1000 people that may want to hear from you. And that’s just sort of, we’ve been heading down this road for quite a while, like, if you look at advertising, you know, go back 10 years, you know, I was at the I was managing Media and Communications at the Port Authority of New York, New Jersey, and I 99% sure if my memory is correct, it was Levi, who, you know, was very thoughtful, and I couldn’t believe they were so nice and called and said hey, listen, you know, the One World Trade Center, the Freedom Tower, we we did some shots of that, and we’re gonna include it in in our upcoming commercials. And we’re just like, Oh, thanks for the heads up. That’s very nice of you. And then when the commercial came out, you know, it was it was about genes. But if you were it was literally saying follow your passion, follow who you are following how authentic you are, you know, in these jeans will get you there, basically. Right? And you’re like, Why are

Chris Shigas
you pushing it? Yeah. That’s what you think, like, at what point is a company trying to be authentic? But maybe they just push it a little too far, right? They want to save the whales save the sale, save the trees, save the bees. And and you’re like, Okay, I get it like, you know, that’s a little too much. When when do you know you’re pressing on the gas pedal too hard?

Anthony Hayes
Yeah, that’s a solid and very good question. And I think it’s sort of case by case basis, but at the end of the day, right, like, what would I mean, let’s, we’re talking about mostly companies that provide said service, right? Like, that doesn’t mean, you have a reason for communicating in the world, you’re trying to get your customers to do something, etc. So stick to what you’re good at. Like, that doesn’t mean you can’t have part of your messaging be about, you know, what your social good is as a company, but if your social good is taking over the reason you’re there, then you’re becoming an advocacy organization. Right? And so it doesn’t mean you can, I mean, good for you. But like, that means you’ve changed your entire business model. Now you’re an addressee. And I think that’s a real struggle for a lot. I think, a lot of organizations, certainly people that we’ve worked with over the last, you know, 12 to 18 months, in particular, have been really trying to figure that out of like, how do we do this? And how do we especially if you’re a New York City based company, where we’re living in a city where COVID really hit right, like you have, you want to sort of be a part of the message of the of your city reopening and doing all these things, but you also are, maybe maybe you are selling jeans, or maybe you are selling, you know, pizza is, then that’s a new sort of, like, idea that’s getting presented, but you, you know, you can’t constantly sort of just be about the advocacy message, because otherwise, then your whole business model changes.

Chris Shigas
Sometimes a company’s forced into the spotlight, and I’ll give you an example here, I live in Atlanta, and there was a police shooting of an African American in Atlanta in a parking lot of a Wendy’s. And the protests that evening, they burned down the Wendy’s restaurant. Yep. And Wendy’s had, you know, their social media is very quirky, where they tell jokes and things. So they had to stop shift gears here. Right? Yeah. And so when you are a company thrust, thrust it into a social issue? Where is your? Is the focus on your customers? Is it on your media? Is it on your employees? Can you be everything to everyone?

Anthony Hayes
No, you should just be you know, you should try to approach it, in my opinion, you should try to approach it with as much empathy as possible. And then I believe, when you’re sort of heading down that road, right? If you’re sort of being empathetic to what is a terrible situation. And I think there’s many that we could identify right, this is you just identified this one. But when you I believe, when when you are sort of in this situation and forced to sort of speak out, and it may be different than your normal voice. To me, the moment generally calls for empathy, and you likely are less likely to get it wrong. If you’re empathetic and focus on, you know, how people must feel and how we can heal.

Chris Shigas
Right. And how do you know is that I guess there’s not a hard fast rule of this is our brand speaking, this is our company speaking or this is our CEO, speaking as a person?

Anthony Hayes
Yeah, I think a lot of people try to thread that needle, I don’t think they’re different. Personally, like, right. I don’t know anybody who Yeah, to me, they’re the same. And I would I if I were advising people, I would, I would, you know, I think there’s, you know, we’ve worked with some people that have, you know, the business and then they may have like a foundation, right? And they, they try to treat them differently. And I’m like, but they’re the same. They’re, they’re the same group, like the business is funding the foundation. And so you know, and I think sometimes things get set up that way, for legal reasons, etc. And it’s no one’s fault. And it’s the best of intentions. I don’t think people mean to try to be cute, but it’s sort of they’re not, there’s no way to separate a CEO from a business. If they’re certainly if they’re the current sitting CEO, in my opinion, I don’t know how anyone would ever give them the benefit of the doubt on that, personally.

Chris Shigas
And so kind of Lastly, and we talked about this slacktivism thing, and how does a company create real change and it’s authentic? And for a company that maybe is trying to get their act together? Maybe they haven’t moved diversity and inclusion department or, and they really want to do more than just write a statement. Do you? Do you have any suggestions for what direction? What role should comms play in that and then what the What are some of the initial steps a company should take to get it? Right?

Anthony Hayes
Right? Well, there are two different things. So the comms department can communicate what is right. And so if they are if they don’t have their house in order, and they’re trying to do the right things, and they’re trying to move forward, but they’re not there yet. That’s an operational. And like that’s that is operational, HR, business CEO, decision maker level, and the client from the top level. Yeah, the comms team can be in the room. But if you’re, you know, I think it is always a dangerous territory. And I think a lot of people obviously create policy this way, like, let’s be honest, like, we all live in the real world. But when the comms team is making policy, based on what will be good publicly, then you have a real, that’s where we get into systemic problems. That’s an operational and business problem that needs to be solved. If you have an operational and business problem that about lack of diversity in your business, right at the at the, that’s not the comms job. They can they can point it out to you. Like, we can come up with, like how you would discuss this, how you could put out a public statement saying, Listen, we know our houses, and in order we hear you. And rather than make, you know, sort of an empty, fluffy statement, we’re going to tell you today, we recognize it. And tomorrow, we’re going to bring in the right people to put this in place. So we can build a real Foundation, right? Something like that, that that, that makes it clear to everybody that you know, like, hey, look, you’re right. But I do think there’s a lot of that where people want to, you know, I have the needle kind of, you know, toss of the ball kind of thing and hope it goes through it. But it’s like, people can smell that a mile away.

Chris Shigas
So it’s a has to be a systemic change in your organization.

Anthony Hayes
Yeah, it’s not, it’s not a comms problem, like a lack of diversity in your business isn’t a comms problem. That’s, that’s it. That’s it. Like, what kind of business you want to have problems. So community communicators often get brought in to try to fix it when there’s a crisis,

Chris Shigas
right? But that’s not all right. And then when you’re working To that end, right. And maybe you’re engaging in some, some training for employees, things like that, and some unconscious bias or trainings or things like that, and then, you know, perhaps on some level, start engaging in the community with some of these organizations. Right? Yeah.

Anthony Hayes
I mean, go out, you’re not the expert, clearly, you so go out and engage with experts who can help help you. You know, listen, I think we’ve seen that there are a lot of systemic challenges just in our world. And that translates into the business community, there’s no way it won’t. So business leaders that can actually acknowledge, like, Hey, we need to bring in people who can help train us and make sure that we’re not having unconscious bias, or that we’re not doing that as best we can. Right. And I think just sort of demonstrating that you’re, you’re gonna do the best you can by bringing in experts, because you clearly are not the expert.

Chris Shigas
So Anthony, this isn’t a trend this company’s as a moral compass. I think this is this is where we are from here on out.

Anthony Hayes
Well, I think where are we? Yes, I think what’s going to happen is, you know, let’s not forget, and I think it’s always very easy to sort of assume that the pressure is coming from outside in. It’s also coming from inside out. You have employees who are asking their bosses to speak up.

Chris Shigas
And so yeah, maybe just part of a new generational thing,

Anthony Hayes
right? Yeah. I don’t I don’t see. Nor do I think necessarily, it should go away. I think I think the reality is, the more conscious we are, the more aware we are, the more we can have someone raise raise up when something is not the way it should be. Ns find a path forward to correct it. Like that, to me feels like we’re moving forward, you know, in a positive way. And we’re not only giving feedback, we’re hearing feedback, and we’re making change.

Chris Shigas
Great. Anthony, thank you so much for joining us up here wars.

Anthony Hayes
This was great. Thanks so much.

Chris Shigas
You can listen to a new episode of PR Wars every Sunday night at 8pm eastern. I want to thank Anthony Hayes, Founder and President of The Hayes Initiative, and do me a favor. If you’re looking to engage your company in social issues, be authentic. Are you representing your corporate values? And as a communicator, to have real empathy, maybe just maybe we should listen a little more then we speak. Now go get ’em.

PR Wars was selected as a Top PR Podcast You Must Follow in 2021 by Feedspot.

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