This piece is sponsored by Philip Morris International.
Extreme viewpoints are becoming normalized, especially across social media. While these expressions can help to highlight issues of societal importance, they also raise the pitch at which tough topics are discussed. The result may be deeper societal divisions, making it difficult to effectively address climate change, racial equality and other key topics.
When discussions become incendiary, big business often prefers to stay “above the fray,” but Philip Morris International (PMI) suggests that, instead, corporations have a role to play in fostering a return to civility and meaningful engagement. Lessons from first-hand experience, as well as research PMI has conducted on the topic of hate, have implications for public discourse in general. This is especially true of discussions held on social media platforms where extreme language and over simplification is rewarded with more views.
Traditionally when faced with controversy, big business may try to appear neutral or placate concerned audiences with generic goodwill statements. But that’s becoming less acceptable as corporations are held to higher standards of transparency and responsibility for the markets they serve. By acknowledging the negative and engaging for the positive, businesses also have an opportunity to provide thoughtful leadership.
Learning how to scale down emotionally charged discourse to enable meaningful discussions is a valuable skill, especially amidst reports of increases in violent crime and hate speech. Fear and anger have long inspired violence, bullying and other forms of hostility. Yet the prevalence of social media, a growing lack of trust in established agencies, and recent stressful events such as the coronavirus pandemic are aggravating frustrations, leading to greater societal divisions.
Or at least that is the impression. Because social media can amplify minority viewpoints, it’s possible that an increase in hostile events may reflect an increase in the reporting of such events. The impression may also be due to greater outrage regarding hate crimes and language. Still, there’s a reason “doom scrolling” is now part of the modern lexicon. Having fears and being angry isn’t all bad. It can energize people to action. But, left to grow, anger can lead to hate, which has been shown to last longer than anger and be more intractable.
Show instead of tell
Instead of sharing sweeping statements, firms should demonstrate values with numerous small actions, thereby solidifying relationships with employees, customers and other stakeholders. And when responding to dissenting opinions, cite data instead of feelings. Championing facts may better counter noise meant to confuse or mislead audiences.
Tone-deaf responses are most likely when a firm doesn’t really know its audience, and the best way to get to know an audience is to constantly, consistently engage with it. Actively listening to the concerns of stakeholders shows empathy and can help build trust, which makes having meaningful conversations about potentially divisive topics easier.
And when identifying with an audience, consider if the firm’s staff reflects the audience’s gender, race and ethnicities. Inclusion and diversity in the workplace may, again, help efforts to better understand an audience.
Discussions on climate change, public health, race relations, politics and other issues can stir uncomfortable emotions, leading people to react with simple counter statements or incendiary language. This is especially true on meme-friendly social media and can quickly escalate into hate speech and provocations.
Instead, PMI suggests becoming more comfortable with discomfort and allow differing views to be heard and considered, before responding, preferably with compassion and, if possible, data.
Ignorance loves a vacuum, so instead of just reacting to the worst trollers, consider taking a more proactive role in important societal discussions. Corporations have an opportunity to position themselves as “super solvers” by sharing a positive vision, providing a safe space in which differing perspectives can be heard, and demonstrating actions that bring communities closer to agreement.
Proactively looking out for the interests of society can boost brand loyalty, build trust and help combat misinformation campaigns. Eventually, encouraging civil discourse and leading by example could even result in meaningful change in the communities and overall societies in which corporations participate.