Student Corner

PR with Purpose

By Rebeca Blyde on January 22, 2024

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A close-up black and white photo of Colin Kaepernick's face with white text over top that reads, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." The Nike logo and slogan, "Just Do It" are at the bottom in white.

There are many activists in the world, but sadly not all of them have a significant platform from which they can voice their opinions, raise awareness, and ultimately affect change. And when well-known businesses that we have come to love start discussing social issues on social media, we tend to pay attention, don’t we?

That’s when activist PR comes in handy as a strategic communications approach.

Although corporate activism is not a new phenomenon, it has recently grown in importance as a result of the emergence of social media, rising consumer and employee expectations, and the global significance of topics like climate change, racial justice, and human rights, just to name a few. 

Let’s remember in 2018 when the best collaboration ever made besides peanut butter and jelly happened unexpectedly: Nike and Colin Kaepernick. Nike featured the former NFL quarterback, known for his anti-racial injustice protests, in a high-profile social media campaign focused on the controversial behaviour of the NFL star, which, at the same time, made him the face of the Just Do It campaign’s 30th anniversary. I mean, Nike wouldn’t miss that chance. 

YouTube video

This controversy sparked a heated debate, with some applauding Nike for supporting Kaepernick’s activism and others expressing outrage and trying to figure out whether they should be lacing up their sneakers or setting them on fire. I mean…who knew sportswear could be so controversial? It’s like they turned the shoe aisle into a political battleground.

Step aside, fashion; we’ve got a game of activism going on!

After that, lots of people thought Nike was going down. Or, maybe not a lot of people. Maybe just… Donald Trump? Let’s also remember that after the campaign was released, Trump openly expressed his outrage and tweeted, “Nike is just getting killed with anger and boycotts.”

Was it, though?

The Just Do It campaign’s 30th anniversary resulted in $43 billion worth of media exposure in less than 24 hours after Kaepernick announced it on Twitter, and Nike’s online sales jumped 25%. 

After all, seems like sports and drama are a good pair.  

Nike’s dedication to social justice and diversity isn’t new. The brand has historically supported social causes and diversity, which has gained traction with a younger audience over time, helping to boost the brand’s reputation among customers who share the same beliefs. 

This partnership has positioned the company as one that supports social activism and is in line with the ideals of a customer base that is socially conscious. Because of this, Nike has set itself apart from rivals and enhanced its position as a cultural influencer brand

Are you getting my point now? Profit with purpose. I think the power of activism is awesome. As long as it is done properly. 

There are great benefits of activist PR, it relates to advocacy for change as a tool for transformation in society, raise awareness, mobilize support for different causes, influence policy through strategic communication and public engagement, foster corporate responsibility and encourage dialogue.

On the other hand, some of the pitfalls and challenges are facing backlash from groups with different views, exposing the brand to criticism and negative media coverage. Sometimes there may be authenticity concerns as some people may look at it as an opportunistic. There’s a risk of polarization, and managing expectations can be complicated as some may expect to see immediate change, which usually ends up in disappointment. Activist campaigns can also be resource-intense in terms of time, money and manpower, which can be challenging over a long-term period.

So, should we believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything? Or should Colin keep that slogan for himself?

My humble advice: Just do it – or don’t, depending on your stand for justice and how much your organization is willing to do it with honesty, strategic alignment, and a dedication to making a positive impact. 

Recommendations to incorporate corporate activism:

  1. Transparency, credibility, and accountability. To do so, perhaps use a mix of owned, earned, and paid media to amplify your message and reach different stakeholders. The message and activities can be supported and promoted by influencers and advocates.
  2. Use social media and digital platforms so the organization can interact and engage with the target consumers as well as track and address their comments and criticism. 
  3. Take initiatives. Events and campaigns can raise awareness of specific issues, inspire action, and show the companies’ leadership. 
  4. In order to measure and assess corporate activism, an organization must keep track of its progress and impact on the issues it cares about, evaluate and boost performance, learn and adjust to changing stakeholder needs and expectations, and share and celebrate successes.

And remember that activist PR is a commitment to improving your bottom line beyond just profits. It’s about telling the stories that matter and doing it responsibly. 

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