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What Does Issue Engagement Mean for a Company?

Public trust for all institutions, whether private or public, is waning. Look no further than the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, which shows that trust in corporations around the globe continues to erode. The other unsettling reality is that government is even less trustworthy than corporations. In this worrisome age, only 30% of the general public around the world trusts their governments to serve everyone’s interests.

Taken together, these two truths add up to a third reality for U.S. corporations: The greater the perceived impotence of our federal government, the greater the potential societal responsibility of American business. A corporation’s communications and public affairs strategy should reflect these challenging new imperatives, as well as a much-changed consumer market. 

Stand for Something

In the past, businesses have largely stayed out of politics. The steadfast rule has been: Focus on shareholders and customers. There was a bright line between business and public services that is bright no more. Two-thirds of consumers in the U.S. now expect brands to stand for social and political issues beyond their product, to take enlightened political positions, to be sensitive and diverse in advertising, to be minimalist in their carbon footprints and to engage in sophisticated corporate social responsibility. 

The research suggests that younger consumers recognize the dysfunction of American society and want companies to step into the void. So many companies have been successful at disrupting the marketplace and creating new business models; the 18- to 35-year-olds say: Why not a similar approach when it comes to social and political issues? 

It’s not that simple, but companies need to appreciate how the rules of engagement have changed. Young consumers are putting the onus on companies to lead, to exhibit courage, to say to their consumer base and opinion leaders alike, “We’ve got this.” Of course, defining “this” is easier said than done. It demands input from the entire organization.

What’s a Company to Do?

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time examining the “mercantile activism” phenomenon, the new age of activist corporations. How do companies lead — or follow adroitly — in an age of heightened environmental, social and governance expectations and instantaneous and viral online judging? 

Smart companies must have a soul and know when silence is not golden, so they should be prepared to engage and lead on some front.

Well, there’s no surefire roadmap. But I can recommend certain guideposts that can help companies navigate today’s crosscurrents. 

The first is that any potential corporate activism needs to be carefully factored into your company’s risk management planning, with buy-in from senior management, beginning with your CEO and extending through your brand managers and division heads, from the counsel’s office through communications, marketing, advertising and all the rest.

Doing Nothing Can Be a Risk

Every action has a reaction, so any benefit needs to be weighed against cost, and inaction — standing by and doing nothing or next-to-nothing in a climate that cries out for leadership — needs to be considered a “cost.” 

If any form of public activism is seen as antithetical to your brand essence, then maybe it’s time for your brand to be infused with new energy. I don’t mean indiscriminately popping off. I mean picking an issue (or issues) that you know from research will animate your key constituencies and stakeholders. It could be diversity, harassment, gun violence, women’s health, climate change, sustainability or others.

Be Aware of the Totality of Your Brand

Your issue rollout needs to be as methodically planned as your introduction of a new product or service. It needs to be embraced by the CEO and senior leadership. And it has to be authentic: If you’re going to do it, do it and believe in it. No half measures.

You need to recognize that you’re now the totality of your brand, including not just what you say in your advertisements, but where you place it (e.g., CNN or Fox News), your lobbying outreach, your environmental footprint, your corporate social responsibility, your affinity marketing and so on.  

Finally, remember that a whole generation has grown up expecting its brands to have a social conscience. It’s not just consumers and customers — it’s now shareholders and sundry stakeholders, too. Smart companies must have a soul and know when silence is not golden. Be prepared to engage and lead on some front. There’s no going back. 

Richard Levick

Chairman and CEO of LEVICK @richardlevick

Richard Levick is chairman and CEO of LEVICK, a global advisory firm providing a full range of strategic communications consulting services to companies and nations involved in critical high-stakes issues. He can be reached at:

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