By Bob Osmond, President, RPG

The University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released its Global Communication Report this week and it confirms a lot of things we know to be true about the need for brands to build and flex their purpose muscle. It also suggests a not-too-distant world in which brands will need to move beyond obvious and well-worn territories (like climate change and diversity), to take stands on more vexing problems if they expect to stand out and win favor with next-generation buyers.

Activists as Influencers

A comprehensive survey of more than 1,000 public relations leaders and students worldwide and of nearly 300 citizens engaged in public action and politics, the report looks at the PR industry’s views on activism, how prepared communicators are to react or work with various activist groups, and who they think will drive change in the future.

The big takeaway: Citizens have grown frustrated by a lack of government leadership, and they expect businesses to fill that void. (Worth noting, this survey was completed before the end of February, when the global crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic was only a gathering storm. I’d love to see a recut of the data today.)

Among its many interesting threads, the report finds that communicators believe that activism will grow in influence over the next five years, and that “average citizens” will become the most influential types of activist. This is primarily driven by their lack of trust in political institutions.

Annenberg defines the prototypical “New Activist” as a younger, nonwhite, urban female who is well-educated and tech-savvy. She also will be more informed, more empathetic and more passionate — qualities, the report notes, that facilitate cooperation with brands and companies.

“We are witnessing the democratization of activism,” Fred Cook, director of USC Center for Public Relations, said in the release announcing the report. “Today’s activists are everyday citizens united in their desire to create real change and they’re employing modern communication strategies to influence the political process…Their influence is growing, and they’re willing to partner with progressive companies who align with their values.”

In other words, activists may become the new influencer.

Be Bold to Stand Out

Not surprisingly, the younger communications pros surveyed mapped to the general consensus of Millennial and Gen Z consumers that brands must take stands on major societal issues to gain their attention, support and trust (84%, the survey said). It’s a reasonable expectation, then, that these younger PR practitioners will push brands beyond consensus issues and into thornier territories.

An example of a company willing to take a stand is consumer brand Steak-umm. They are actively using their Twitter feed to champion “truth” and science, promoting media literacy and evidence-based public health policy. The stakes (yup, I went there), for democracies are high when it comes to these red-meat issues and Steak-umm is fearlessly forging ahead. While some have told the brand to “stick to steak,” they have gained a significant awareness boost as a result of their bold move.

Conversations that Matter

At Racepoint, our mission is to shape conversations that matter. We anticipate that brands will take on more complex issues, driven by the interests and attitudes of a new generation of communications professionals.

In the post-pandemic world, communicators will likely be more comfortable pushing potentially difficult conversations about public health, poverty, hunger, income inequality and voting rights, if for no other reason than the world of stating and living your brand purpose is becoming ever more crowded.

As the opportunity to insert brand voices into big issues grows, however, brands must hold themselves accountable to have an authentic and defensible point of view. Otherwise, they’ll join the ranks of those previously accused of green- or rainbow-washing their corporate realities. And that won’t fly with activists—or the average consumer.

What’s your take?

Download USC Annenberg's 2020 Global Communication Report HERE.

About the Author

Bob Osmond

Bob Osmond is President of Racepoint Global and an avowed lover of puns.