Social media activism is no longer optional, especially for larger brands. Consumers, employees, and social followers all expect your brand to take a stand on issues that really matter.
Bonus: Read the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.
What is social media activism?
Social media activism is an online form of protest or advocacy for a cause. Because hashtags play a central role in mobilizing movements on social media, the term is often used interchangeably with hashtag activism.
Activism on social media includes promoting awareness of social justice issues and showing solidarity through the use of hashtags, posts, and campaigns.
Genuine social media activism is supported by concrete actions, donations, and measurable commitments to change.
Without genuine offline action, using a hashtag or posting a black square or rainbow flag comes across as opportunistic and lazy. Critics are often quick to call out these minimal efforts as “slacktivism” or performative allyship.
Brands should tread carefully: More than three-quarters of Americans (76%) say “social media makes people think they are making a difference when they really aren’t.”
Along the same lines, when a company participates in social media activism that does not align with its past or present actions, it can prompt backlash and calls of virtue signaling, greenwashing, or rainbow capitalism.
We’re about to dive into 10 ways to engage in meaningful activism on social media. And, of course, we’ll provide plenty of social media activism examples where brands got things right.
But it really all boils down to this:
Words are just words, and hashtags are just hashtags. Yes, they can both be extremely powerful. But for brands, especially those with significant market share and resources, actions speak much louder. Social media activism must be accompanied by real world action.
Listen to credible voices working on the cause. Learn from those who have well-established expertise in the movement. And commit to working towards real change.
How to use social media to authentically support a cause: 10 tips
The first thing to do before engaging in social media activism – whether you’re responding to an immediate crisis or beginning a longer term campaign of activism and allyship – is to hit pause.
Review your social calendar. If you use a social media scheduler, you might want to unschedule upcoming posts and save them for later. Review your content calendar to see how things align with the stance you’re about to take. If you’re responding to a crisis, you’ll likely want to stay focused on the cause at hand.
Consumers do want brands to respond in times of crisis. More than 60% say “brands should acknowledge moments of crisis in their advertising and communications when they are occurring.”
In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays paused their social media game coverage and instead used their social channels to share information about gun violence.
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) May 26, 2022
They went all-in on this, not holding anything back.
Firearms were the leading cause of death for American children and teens in 2020.
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) May 26, 2022
While your regular content is on pause, take the time to learn about what’s happening beyond the headlines so you can take a meaningful stance followed up with concrete action.
That action component is critical in terms of garnering support for your activism rather than backlash.
Before returning to regular programming, consider how your campaigns and content will resonate within the larger context.
- Try to profit from your support. Social movements are not marketing opportunities, and customers will call out actions your brand takes that appear motivated by anything other than good faith.
2. Listen to your customers (and employees)
It’s normal for emotions to run high during social justice and human rights movements. But those in-the-moment spikes can lead to long-term changes in how people feel and behave – and how they expect companies to behave.
70% of members of Generation Z say they are involved in a social or political cause. And they expect brands to join them. More than half (57%) of Gen Z says brands can do more to solve societal problems than governments can, and 62% say they want to work with brands to address those issues.
But the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found consumers don’t think brands are doing enough to address social change.
Source: Edelman 2022 Trust Barometer
Use social listening to better understand how your audience is feeling. Understanding the broader perspective allows you to express empathy and solidarity with negative sentiments, then rally your audience around positive sentiments with strong calls to action.
This could include rallying followers to share messages, sign petitions, or match donations. Sometimes it’s as simple as acknowledging how people feel in the context of social upheaval, such as Aerie’s ongoing advocacy for mental wellness – in this case, literally giving followers tools for combatting anxiety and improving mental health.
- Dismiss emotions or police tone. People typically have legitimate reasons to feel what they feel.
3. Be honest and transparent
Before posting anything in support of a cause, reflect on your company history and culture. That might mean looking at the diversity of your teams, re-evaluating non-environmental practices, assessing the accessibility of your marketing, and more.
While difficult, it’s important to have honest internal conversations about company values and changes you may need to make. If you’re not honest, you’re going to have problems with social media activism.
Admitting past mistakes is the first way to show that your company means what it says. Be upfront about anything that goes against your current position. Without doing this, your social activism will ring hollow—or worse, hypocritical. It could also prompt people to call you out.
Disney originally stayed silent in response to Florida’s “Dont Say Gay” bill, sending out an internal email of support for LGBTQ employees rather than making a public statement. That quickly became a problem for the company, as the hashtag #DisneyDoBetter took off and employees, creatives, and fans all shared their concerns about the weak stance as well as the company’s previous donations to supporters of the bill.
tl;dr: “We will continue to invite the LGBTQ+ community to spend their money on our sometimes-inclusive content while we support politicians working tirelessly to curtail LGBTQ+ rights.”
I’m a huge Disney fan as is well documented on this site. Even I say this statement is weak. https://t.co/vcbAdapjr1
— (((Drew Z. Greenberg))) (@DrewZachary) March 7, 2022
Within a few days, Disney had to acknowledge its mistake and make a lengthy public statement.
— Walt Disney Company (@WaltDisneyCo) March 11, 2022
Brands can either hold themselves accountable, or be held accountable. But don’t feel you need to be perfect before you can take a stand. For example, more than half of employees say CEOs should publicly speak out about racism as soon as the company has its own racial equity and diversity goals in place, with concrete plans to meet them.
- Hide internal issues and hope no one finds out about them – or hide behind internal communications. Internal emails can quickly go public when employee concerns are not addressed.
- Be afraid to be honest. Customers appreciate honesty. But Edelman found only 18% of employees trust their company’s head of DEI to be honest about racism within the organization. If your employees can’t trust you, how can customers?
4. Be human
Humanize your communication efforts. People can and do see through inauthentic behavior.
Overused phrases and carefully calibrated language tend to make company statements look templated. (Thoughts and prayers, anyone?) Be considerate in what you want to say, but throw out the corporate jargon and canned content. Be real.
Edelman found that 81% of respondents to the 2022 Trust Barometer expect CEOs to be personally visible when talking about work their company has done to benefit society.
When then-Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier spoke out about voting rights, the company posted his comments on their social accounts.
— Merck (@Merck) March 31, 2021
Yes, this is a statement that has likely gone through lawyers and other corporate messaging professionals. But it’s clear and does not hold back. And Frazier has repeatedly proven his ability to unite business leaders in social action. He’s talked about his values and how the issues on which he chooses to take a stand align with corporate values.
He told the Albert and Mary Lasker foundation that when he stepped down from President Trump’s Business Council after the President’s remarks about events in Charlottesville, he spoke to the Merck board about whether he should present it as a strictly personal decision or include mention of the company.
“I’m very proud to say that my board unanimously said, ‘No, we actually want you to speak to the company’s values, not just your personal values,’” he said.
- Just say what everyone else is saying. It needs to come from your company.
- Worry about keywords, irrelevant hashtags, or algorithms. Say the right thing, not the highest ranking thing.
5. Make your stance clear and consistent
When you do share a message in support of a cause, ensure that message leaves no room for ambiguity. Don’t leave people asking questions or filling in the blanks for you.
The gold standard for clear brand positioning comes from ice cream brand Ben and Jerry’s. They are consistent and vocal in their support of racial and social justice.
Consumers want your stance on important issues to be clear before they make a purchase. That means taking a stand in your social content and ads, but also on your website, so the message is consistent when someone clicks through to learn more or buy.
- Try to have it all or do it all. Speak to the causes that matter most to your brand and your employees, so you can be consistent and authentic.
People want to hear how brands are tackling issues beyond social media.
It’s one thing to post a message in support of Ukraine. But it’s action that really counts. More than 40% of consumers boycotted businesses that continued to operate in Russia after the invasion. On social, both #BoycottMcDonalds and #BoycottCocaCola were trending in early March, until the companies finally ceased Russian operations.
@CocaCola is refusing to pull out of Russia – outrageous and disgusting decision. I will NOT be adding to their profits (and I am particularly partial to Costa Coffee) and i would encourage others to boycott too. #BoycottCocaCola #Ukraine️ pic.twitter.com/tcEc6J6sR1
— Alison (@senttocoventry) March 4, 2022
Show that your company is actually taking action. Which organizations are you donating to, and how much? Will you make regular contributions? How is your brand actually doing good within communities? What steps are you taking toward a more ethical production process and supply chain? Be specific. Share receipts.
For example, when Dove launched its #KeepTheGrey campaign to draw attention to ageism and sexism in the workplace, the brand donated $100,000 to Catalyst, an organization that helps create more inclusive workplaces.
Age is beautiful. Women should be able to do it on their own terms, without any consequences 👩🏼🦳👩🏾🦳Dove is donating $100,000 to Catalyst, a Canadian organization helping build inclusive workplaces for all women. Go grey with us, turn your profile picture greyscale and #KeepTheGrey pic.twitter.com/SW5X93r4Qj
— Dove Canada (@DoveCanada) August 21, 2022
And when the makeup brand Fluide celebrated Trans Day of Visibility, they highlighted diverse trans models while committing to donate 20% of sales during the campaign to Black Trans Femmes in the Arts.
- Make empty promises. Edelman’s 2022 special report on business and racial justice found more than half of Americans think companies are not doing a good job meeting their promises to address racism. If you can’t live up to your promises, you’re better off not to make them in the first place.
7. Ensure your actions reflect your company culture
Similar to point #3, practice what you preach. If your brand promotes diversity on social media, your workplace should be diverse. If you promote environmentalism, you should use sustainable practices. Otherwise, it’s not social activism. It’s performative allyship or greenwashing. And people notice: Twitter saw a 158% increase in mentions of “greenwashing” this year.
One way to ensure your activism aligns with your culture is to choose causes that connect to your brand purpose. In fact, 55% of consumers say it’s important for a brand to take action on issues that relate to its core values and 46% say brands should speak about social issues directly related to their industry.
For example, the sexual wellness brand Maude has an ongoing campaign promoting inclusive #SexEdForAll.
Offering real calls for action and donating a percentage of profits from their Sex Ed For All capsule collection, they work in partnership with the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) to promote inclusive sex education.
That said, your brand purpose may not have an obvious connection to social causes. That doesn’t mean you can opt out of the conversation.
Source: Twitter Marketing
Responsible corporate culture should be first and foremost about doing the right thing. But know that over time, it will actually improve your bottom line. Diverse companies are more profitable and make better decisions.
- Take too long to follow through on commitments. Your customers are watching and waiting.
8. Plan for good and bad responses
Before your brand takes a stance on social media, prepare for feedback.
The aim of social activism is often to disrupt the status quo. Not everyone will agree with your position. Customers may applaud your brand, while others will be critical. Many will be emotional. And unfortunately, some commenters may be abusive or hateful.
Brands taking a stand in the face of the overturning of Roe v. Wade faced abusive comments on their social posts.
Benefit did all the right things on this post by stating the actions they were taking, showing how the cause related to their core values, and linking to partners who are experts in the work.
That said, they still faced comments that could be very triggering for their social team to see coming in, especially anyone impacted by their own abortion or fertility experiences.
Expect an influx of messages and equip your social media managers with the tools they need to handle them. That includes mental health support—especially for those who are directly impacted by the movement you are supporting.
Consider the following do’s and don’ts:
- Review your social media guidelines and update as needed.
- Clearly define what constitutes abusive language and how to handle it.
- Develop a response plan for frequently asked questions or common statements.
- Be human. You can personalize responses while sticking to the script.
- Hold relevant training sessions.
- Apologize for past actions, when necessary.
- Adapt your strategy for different audiences on different social media platforms.
- Disappear. Remain present with your audience, even if they are upset with you.
- Delete comments unless they are abusive or harmful. Don’t tolerate hate.
- Be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers.
- Make it the responsibility of your followers to defend their basic human rights.
- Take too long to respond. Use tools like Mentionlytics to keep track of messages.
9. Diversify and represent
Diversity shouldn’t just be a box your brand checks during Pride month, Black History Month, or on International Women’s Day. If you support LGBTQ rights, gender equality, disability rights, and anti-racism, show that commitment throughout the year.
Make your marketing inclusive. Build representation into your social media style guide and overall content strategy. Source from inclusive stock imagery from sites like TONL, Vice’s Gender Spectrum Collection, and Elevate. Hire diverse models and creatives. Remember that just about every movement is intersectional.
Most important: Listen to people’s voices rather than simply using their faces. Shayla Oulette Stonechild is not only the first Indigenous global yoga ambassador for Lululemon, but she’s also on the company’s Vancouver-based committee for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Open your platform up to takeovers. Amplify unique voices. Build meaningful relationships with a broader group of influencers and creators. You’ll likely grow your audience and customer base as a result.
- Stereotype. Don’t cast people in roles that perpetuate negative or biased stereotypes.
- Let abusive comments go unchecked after spotlighting someone. Be prepared to offer support.
10. Keep doing the work
The work doesn’t stop when the hashtag stops trending.
An important point to not forget. This is not the time to divest from purpose and inclusivity in marketing, it’s actually the time to dive deeper into those commitments— and truly great marketers should be able to both show ROI AND center purpose https://t.co/8w43F57lXO
— God-is Rivera (@GodisRivera) August 3, 2022
Commit to ongoing social activism and learning. Continue educating your brand and your employees and sharing helpful information with social media users who follow your brand.
Champion the cause offline, too. Perform non-optical allyship. Look for ways to support long-term change. Become a mentor. Volunteer. Donate your time. Keep fighting for equity.
- Think of brand activism as “one and done.” One supportive post isn’t going to cut it. If you’re going to wade into the waters of digital activism, be prepared to stay there for the long term.
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