The corporate dilemma over The Voice

Icon Reputation's director of media and public affairs, Benjamin Haslem, asks if brands should be making public endorsements for The Voice, and if so, how?

Adopting a public corporate position on the looming Voice referendum is the question exercising the minds of many boards.

More than half of the ASX top 20 companies have backed a ‘yes’ vote. None has advocated voting ‘no’. Of those not taking a stand, some have tried to straddle the fence saying that, while they support the spirit of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the referendum was a personal choice for voters.

Gaming giant Aristocrat Leisure cited discussions with its internal Indigenous employee advocacy group, which “highlighted the range of sincerely and deeply held views among Indigenous staff and communities”.

So, should brands publicly endorse a yes vote and how do they manage any fallout to their reputation once a decision is made?

What is the argument to join the likes of Qantas, Transurban, BHP, Rio Tinto, Newcrest and the big banks in backing a yes vote?

From a reputation and brand image perspective, endorsing a yes vote can demonstrate a company is socially conscious and values inclusivity. This can generate a more positive public perception, attracting customers who align with these values, enhancing the company’s overall brand image.

The flip side is potentially losing customers opposed to the Voice – which on current polling could be more than half of Australian adults. Enshrining a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution is a potentially polarising issue. Emotions are running high and for every customer you win, you could easily lose more.

Alienating a substantial proportion of a target audience can have consequences. Basketballer Michael Jordan’s statement that he wouldn’t engage in political commentary because “Republicans buy shoes too” should be at the back of mind.

Another argument for taking a public stand on a social issue like the Voice comes from the HR department. Many employees, especially from younger generations, prefer to work for companies that align with their values. Supporting the Voice can help a corporation attract and retain diverse and talented individuals who appreciate its commitment to equality.

However, in some companies, employees hold diverse opinions and a corporation’s public position can affect the workplace environment. By not taking a stance, the company may maintain a more cohesive and harmonious atmosphere.

From a risk perspective, by openly supporting inclusive social issues a company may mitigate potential backlash or reputational damage that could arise from not taking a stand. This has never been truer in the age of social media, where a misstep can quickly spiral into reputational catastrophe.

There are examples where taking stands that some view as progressive precipitate a crisis. Gillette’s 2019 ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ campaign against toxic masculinity backfired on social media, and coincided with an $8 billion non-cash write-down.

A Bud Light beer commercial in April featuring transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney, on Instagram, led to a conservative backlash and a drop in sales of almost 25 per cent.

So, what’s the answer? To publicly back a yes vote or not?

Before making a decision, it is crucial that any organisation ask a few questions.

First, you need to understand your audience – both external (customers, suppliers, government) and internal (your employees and shareholders).

What are their opinions and values? What are the potential concerns or objections people might have about how a corporation should communicate its position on a major issue like the Voice without polarising people?

Have you clearly defined your core values and principles that guide decision-making, and have you articulated the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion?

Ensure that your company’s leadership and employees are aligned on the issue and aware of the message you plan to communicate. Let employees know that all views are valued equally and that the company supports a workplace where people are free to express opinions without fear of being vilified.

If you decide to back a yes vote, focus on inclusivity: frame the communication in a way that shows respect for diverse perspectives and emphasises the importance of valuing all stakeholders, regardless of their stance on the issue.

Be Authentic: explain why the issue matters to the corporation and how it aligns with your values.

Educate and Inform: provide employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders with context and background information about the issue to help them better understand it.

Humanise the message: by sharing personal stories from employees who have been directly affected by the issue and importantly highlight the positive contributions the corporation has made to supporting Indigenous Australians.

Emphasise Common Ground: identify shared values or goals that can help bridge differences – we all want to tackle Indigenous disadvantage, we just support different approaches.

Avoid Confrontation: refrain from attacking opposing viewpoints or individuals who disagree, whether internal or external. Use non-confrontational language that encourages understanding rather than division. “We respect the rights of all Australians to make a decision that they feel will be in the best interests of us all.”

Monitor and Respond: keep track of public responses and feedback and address any misinformation or misconceptions promptly and respectfully.

Learn and Adapt: assess the effectiveness of your communication strategy, learn continuously from the experience and adapt your approach for future issues.

Then, make sure you walk your talk. Few things reek of opportunism more than endorsing the yes vote while having no initiatives in place to tackle indigenous disadvantage.

If your organisation has not yet implemented programs to recognise or help Australia’s First Nations people, but you are going to endorse a yes vote, then find ways to demonstrate that you are in this for the long haul.

When outlining your position, perhaps pair it with positives, such as announcing a long-term program to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, such as scholarships or employment and training opportunities.

Critically, ensure you have worked through the decision and can explain your rationale, even to those who may not agree with it.

Benjamin Haslem is director of media and public affairs, at Icon Reputation.


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