This blog post is a summary of “Challenging the Dialogic Promise: How Ben & Jerry’s Support for Black Lives Matter Fosters Dissensus on Social Media,” by Erica Ciszek, Ph.D., University of Texas, and Nneka Logan, Ph.D., Virginia Tech. For the full study, please visit Journal of Public Relations Research.
Within digital landscapes, communication has become complex. Engagement and dialogue in an online environment can be further understood in ways that are not studied or recognized in public relations research.
Communication that does not work toward compromise or consensus has traditionally been considered unethical in public relations. Because existing theories of dialogue do not explore dialogue beyond symmetrical communication, they can’t make sense of organizational public relations in the digital era.
This study challenges the consensus-driven orientations of dialogue, embracing the postmodern concept of dissensus and how it applies in corporate political advocacy (CPA). The critical discourse analysis of Ben & Jerry’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement is evaluated with this concept as a form of CPA.
Research on social media and dialogue has been largely limited to interactive communication platforms such as Facebook and Twitter instead of engaging the theoretical and philosophical components of dialogue. Even though consensus-focused dialogue is primarily discussed in public relations literature, this study considers an agonistic approach to dialogue, in which there should be acknowledgement that conflict is a component of communication and social change. Embracing conflict as a part of dialogue means embracing multi-vocality.
The rise of corporate activism reinforces the importance of a postmodern approach to communications, which calls for the public relations function to create opportunities for dissent without forcing consensus and creating possibilities for change. Unlike corporate social responsibility, within a CPA framework, political and social justice issues are of primary concern, not a corporation’s financial bottom line.
Ben & Jerry’s backs Black Lives Matter Movement
Since its opening, Ben & Jerry’s has defined itself as an aspiring social justice company. According to CEO Jostein Solheim, “From LGBTQ rights and marriage quality, to Occupy Wall Street, Ben & Jerry’s has used the power of its business to motivate fans and promote policies that advance the cause of social justice.”
In 2016, Ben & Jerry’s announced support for the Black Lives Matter movement on its Facebook page, igniting a variety of responses on social media. The study addresses how agonism was expressed on the company’s Facebook page and what Ben & Jerry’s support for Black Lives Matter suggests about the role of communication in social media contexts.
The study employed these critical discourse analysis techniques:
Step 1: Determine the social problem.
Ben & Jerry’s is one of the few corporations to declare racism in the United States a social issue and commit to fighting for racial justice. The company’s Facebook page provided a dialogic digital platform for users to share their perspectives on the social issue and Black Lives Matter. In the thread of responses to the post, there was substantial disagreement, and many called for a boycott.
Step 2: Identify how ideology serves as an obstacle to the problem being solved.
The obstacles to abolishing racism in the United States are centered around racist discrimination ideology, which exists at the level of individual persons and societally.
Step 3: Explore ideology in relation to the social order.
By publicly voicing support of Black Lives Matter, Ben & Jerry’s challenges the social order by announcing racial injustice as a serious problem. On its website, the company said, “Choosing to be silent in the face of such injustice is not an option.”
Step 4: Focus on resolving the social problem by overcoming potential obstacles to a resolution.
To create public understanding about the importance of racial justice, Ben & Jerry’s attempts to educate its publics through its CPA. On its website, the company posted an explanation of the issue along with examples of systemic racism.
Ben & Jerry’s Facebook post became a space to comment on their opinions on the state of racial tensions and politics in the country. Although some users used the comment space as a platform to educate others and dispel misconceptions, most commenters did not engage in dialogue with each other, merely posted standalone statements, showing that social media are discursive spaces but are not inherently dialogic. The study indicates that dialogue involves setting up a space for trust and responsiveness.
This Ben & Jerry’s example shows how an organization can engage in CPA and how social media can allow different perspectives to emerge. The study calls for more research to understand how organizational public relations can take a stand on public issues and cultivate meaningful engagement, particularly within digital landscapes. Because discourse and discussions are the foundations of dialogue, they play an important role in public relations.
Martha Paz-Soldan is a member of the IPR Street Team and a public relations and English student at the University of Florida. She is a copywriter for The Agency, a strategic communication firm housed in the College of Journalism and Communications.