At a recent marketing meeting, a Red Bull employee showed a world map cartoon making fun of the stereotypical US-centric (and sometimes ignorant about the importance of other nations) world view.Not my type of humour, but also not a message of racism.
In response, the joke was leaked in an attempt to punish the not-woke-enough corporate culture. This happened after an attempt to force the brand’s CSR strategy in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement by circulating an online petition amongst Red Bull employees.
As a result, three high-level executives got fired — loudly accompanied by damaging media insinuations of Red Bull being a racist brand. Not great from a PR perspective, but anyone who understands business also understands that you can’t have high-level executives going behind the organisation’s back for personal reasons.
Make no mistake about it: Spreading misrepresentations and lobbying against an employer’s business strategy are reasonable grounds for termination — and should not be confused with whistleblowing. From Wikipedia:
“A whistleblower (also written as whistle-blower or whistle blower) is a person who exposes secretive information or activity within a private or public organization that is deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct. The information of alleged wrongdoing can be classified in many ways: violation of company policy/rules, law, regulation, or threat to public interest/national security, as well as fraud, and corruption.”
Note that misrepresenting the intention of a joke or driving a personal activist agenda doesn’t fall under this definition. Red Bull should be in the clear for firing executives as they were acting in bad faith against the company.
So, what’s the problem?
There’s an entitled belief held by what seems to be a growing number of people in the communications industry that the PR function should be serving as the organisation’s guilty conscience. It stems from the idea that capitalism is evil and that PR (via CSR) should balance this inherent malice. This is a political perspective, not a professional one.
Social activism can be a powerful PR tool when used wisely, but the business must always come first.
The PR function has one single purpose and that is to serve a strategic objective. In business, that objective is to generate profit. Such commerce generates tax incomes for the state, jobs for its citizens, and societal progress through innovation. This is how PR generates value, also.
Red Bull, for instance, has a long history of supporting extreme sports and many of these types of activities have Red Bull to thank for developing into professional elites in their own right — and even Olympic sports in some cases. Supporting the extreme sports community has been a strategically valuable and focused approach for the brand.
For CSR activities to be serving business objectives, any such activities must be a) strategic and b) focused.
Applying a clear and strategically limited focus on communication isn’t evil. And it surely doesn’t imply bigotry or aggression in specific cases where the brand isn’t placing its business focus; to even suggest such a thing is intellectually dishonest at best.
A PR person who suggests that brands are somehow morally responsible to side with the woke middle-class has seriously misunderstood the purpose of the PR function — and of business in general. As a champion for focused and strategically limited communication, it’s the job of a PR professional to help the brand to stand up for itself.
The answer is business integrity, the polar opposite of giving in to anyone who wants to control your business.
A brand with integrity isn’t ashamed of being in business. It isn’t ashamed of providing great products and services at great prices. It isn’t ashamed of providing tax income for the state and producing jobs for people. It isn’t ashamed of driving society forward through innovation, financial risk-taking, and hard work1.
In the case of Red Bull, the brand is making focused CSR contributions to the extreme sports movement. They’re not a cautionary tale, they’re a best practice case study.
Few things in business make me sicker to the stomach than when communicators are shaming innovators, entrepreneurs, and financial risk-takers for not being woke enough.
As PR professionals, we know that the news media sometimes can turn into an unreasonable machine set to destroy businesses and individuals without a fair trial. We see it as our job to prepare and protect our brands from such lynch mobs. Today, there is a whole new set of lynch mobs to account for: They coordinate themselves using secret social media groups to drive deplatforming and cancel culture. They use deliberate misinterpretation, calls for boycott, brandcalling, card-stacking, cherry-picking, and guilt-by-silence to coerce brands into submission.
This development is rapidly becoming more challenging to PR than the struggle of adapting to a digital society. If commercial communications departments accept the woke anti-capitalistic narrative without question, our profession becomes a cancerous and destructive anti-capitalistic force from within. Piggybacking on political movements like Black Lives Matter is fine — if it makes business sense, that is2.
A truly diverse organisation allows for employees of different political persuasions to work side-by-side towards a common business goal. Providing stable employment and salaries through innovation, collaboration, and hard work will always be the best catalyst for civil society to engage in social causes in their spare time — the way it ought to be.
And while some businesses are out of touch with their communities, Red Bull surely doesn’t fall under that category.
About the Author
This article was written by Jerry Silfwer, an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Based in Stockholm, Sweden, you can read more of his work at DoctorSpin.