To Speak Up or Not? Two PR Pros Weigh In
I’ve been reporting a column about whether franchise executives should take a stand on controversial issues, such as the so-called bathroom bill passed in North Carolina in April that restricts the use of restrooms to one’s gender at birth, or the so-called religious freedom law in Mississippi that allows private business owners to refuse service to gay people. It will publish in our June/July issue, but meanwhile here’s the take from two public relations pros.
Brad Ritter, Ritter Communications and Real World Media Training in Los Angeles, says franchisors don’t often think about hot political issues in advance—rather they think about and plan for physical crises.
“Franchisors need to anticipate issues, and they need to have a process in place to develop a response,” he said. “They tend to think about things like a fire. But mismanaging a social issue such as religious freedom laws, that can be damaging, too.”
In general he believes for franchise companies, “unless they have a stake in the issue there is likely more to lose than there is to gain” from speaking out, “especially where there’s a divisive, hot-button issue. Franchisors have to worry about their end users—their franchisees’ customers—but also about their franchisees.”
He advises franchisors to take three steps when deciding whether to respond. 1. Analyze thoroughly in advance whether to take a position or not to take a position. 2. Engage the franchise community in that decision-making process. 3. Be able to communicate very clearly why you are or are not taking a position, and how you arrived at that position.
“Companies that are good at crisis planning and brand protection have a good plan in place to begin with; they update it and train on it and drill periodically,” Ritter said. “And management teams, maybe quarterly or monthly, will have some sort of a process to keep tabs” on issues bubbling up.
Jamie Izaks, founder of All Points PR in Chicago, says the important thing is for companies to back up their values, but they don’t necessarily have to do that loudly. “It could be taking a risk” for a franchisor to take a stand, “but in the end I think there’s something every business needs to live up to. No matter what you’re talking about, it’s your values as an organization. And living up to your values is something that comes long before your stance on any one issue,” Izaks said.
“If your values are the way you handle customers and employees, then you need to operate in that manner. This is not something where you sacrifice your values as an organization.”
That being said, he added, “that doesn’t mean that you have to be boastful about it." He cited the way companies in Texas handled the recent controversy over gun laws. “Some were very vocal. Some just decided to do what other companies were doing. I think that’s what you find here,” with the MS and NC laws. “A lot of companies are taking a wait-and-see approach. It’s been a mixed bag.”
If companies do take a public stand, Izaks said, it must be meticulously planned. Hyatt Hotels, for example, was one of several companies that signed a letter protesting Mississippi’s law when it passed the first week of April. “It’s a completely managed process, so I guarantee for Hyatt and the others to sign that letter, they were ready for anything and everything that might come back. They didn’t just wake up and say, let’s sign this thing,” he said.
Like most things in business and life, it’s complicated. “I wouldn’t say one size fits all with this. If it’s inherent in your brand and you have support of franchisees, it may be a calculated risk worth taking. I don’t think it’s a no-doubter. I think it’s a sensitive topic that in franchising has a lot of unknowns.”