Carlina DiRusso is the recipient of the 2019 Don Bartholomew Award for Excellence in Public Relations Research

What do Patagonia, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Gillette and Nike have in common? Within the past decade, each of these companies has taken a public stance on a controversial social issue, a public relations initiative known as corporate social advocacy (CSA). Consider, for instance, Nike’s ads featuring Colin Kaepernick that address social justice, and Gillette’s videos about toxic masculinity in response to the #MeToo movement.

Although CSA comes with the risk of alienating some audiences, research suggests those risks are outweighed by the benefits of engaging in CSA. For example, values-led corporate communication can increase purchase intent just as much as product-focused messages, while simultaneously driving advocacy behavior. In fact, 64% of consumers worldwide will buy or boycott a brand just because of its stance on a social issue.

Clearly, brand values are an important factor in consumers’ purchasing decisions, but companies still face the challenge of properly communicating their values. One of the most notable instances of poor CSA communication is Pepsi’s 2017 ad that referenced the racial justice movement and was deemed the Fail of the Year.

So how can brands communicate about their values in a way that positively impacts both the brand and the social issue? And if several social issues are important to the brand, how can they choose which one to publicly support?

To address these questions, I conducted an experiment with my colleagues, Christen Buckley, Dr. Pratiti Didi, Dr. Frank Dardis, Dr. Michail Vafeiadis, and Nicholas Eng. We tested three features of a CSA message: emotional tone (positive vs. negative), emotional intensity (calm vs. intense), and issue salience (low vs. high). We wanted to know how these three aspects of CSA communication can impact both company-related outcomes (i.e., purchase intent, company attitudes) and advocacy behavior (i.e., political participation intent, social media engagement).

The experiment provided several key takeaways for companies planning CSA communication:

1. Negatively toned messages outweigh positive tones. Messages with a negative tone were more effective than those with a positive tone across the board. That is, negatively toned CSA communication increased both company-related outcomes and advocacy behavior.

2. Intense language performs better than calm language. Emotionally intense messages (i.e., using strong and vivid language) were more effective than calm messages for increasing advocacy behavior, but emotional intensity did not affect company-related outcomes.

3. But, intense language with a negative tone may negatively impact the brand. Emotional intensity and emotional tone worked together to impact company-related outcomes. When a CSA message had a negative tone with high-intensity language, study participants reported unfavorable company attitudes. Therefore, while a negative tone in CSA messages is effective on its own, companies may want to avoid pairing this with high-intensity language, as our study found it to negatively impact how consumers feel about the company.

4. Select social issues that are highly salient. Lastly, we tested issue salience to help companies determine what kind of social issue to engage with. The high-salience issue was one that was frequently mentioned in media and considered highly important to society, whereas the low-salience issue was the opposite. Our study found that the highly salient issue increased advocacy behavior but had no effect on company-related outcomes. In other words, companies’ selection of social issues based on salience may be inconsequential for purchase intent and company attitudes, but to encourage consumers’ advocacy behavior, companies may want to engage with highly salient issues.

Overall, the findings from our experiment point to the utility of negatively toned CSA communication about highly salient social issues. However, companies should note that when designing CSA messages with a negative tone, they may want to avoid using highly intense language and instead present the information in more neutral manner. With these communication strategies in mind, companies may be better equipped to design CSA messages that promote positive company outcomes as well as prosocial advocacy behavior.

Carlina DiRusso is a soon-to-be doctoral graduate of Pennsylvania State University. She will be an assistant professor of communication at Hope College beginning Fall 2021. Her research explores strategic communication in digital media with a focus on science communication.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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