Brands Taking Stands: 3BL Forum Explores Corporate Activism

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

corporate activism

The Long View Sessions at the 3BL Forum explored the role of the corporate responsibility professional as companies balance taking up social causes with turning a profit.

In the past few years, as discussions about issues like climate change, gun control, inclusiveness, and gender equity have reached a boiling point, companies have increasingly chosen to speak up instead of staying silent. And it’s proving to be a good thing. Studies show that corporate leaders believe that activism positively resonates with customers, thus potentially impacting their bottom line.

Since Nike ran an ad campaign featuring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the controversial practice of kneeling rather than standing during the U.S. national anthem as a protest against racial violence, the company’s shares have gone up by 5 percent, adding $6 billion in value.

Activism also can help to attract and retain employees. According to research completed in late 2018 by 3BL Media and GlobeScan, eight out of 10 corporate leaders believe that their companies should make their voice heard on environmental, social, and governance topics. They also point to personnel recruitment, employee retention, and brand equity as potential benefits of doing so.

Many companies are doing more than just tweeting or publishing press releases: They are taking action on pressing issues. For example, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, both Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods changed their policies to restrict gun sales to customers ages 21 and up. They had previously ended the sale of assault-style rifles. When President Trump announced that he would decrease the size of Bear Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by about half, the outdoor apparel company Patagonia filed a lawsuit.

“All of this is happening remarkably fast,” said Dave Armon, chief marketing officer at 3BL Media. And companies who aren’t quick to say something may lose out. “For some companies, the traditional wisdom — abstaining from issues to focus on results — works just fine,” Daniel Korschun, an associate professor at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, said during a recent 3BL webinar on corporate political activism.

But for other companies, Korschun said, “you’re on the hook for this with consumers; they are going to be interested in what you say when these things come up and when you abstain there is a danger to that. We can’t make statements on everything, but overall, this really identifies the fact that if you try to run away from all politics, it could really backfire in a dramatic way.”

3BL Media, which describes itself as the “world’s leading communications partner for purpose-driven organizations,” helps companies more efficiently deliver that message. The company offers its clients a distribution platform for news, press releases, and other content to a targeted online audience, including consumers and news media, and also produces original content — the corporate responsibility–focused news site, and the Brands Taking Stands e-newsletter. In 2017, the company acquired CR Magazine and COMMIT!Forum, an event for corporate responsibility practitioners, which wasre-branded as 3BL Forum.

“We didn’t want to have just another sustainability conference,” Armon said. “We want to give attendees a chance to learn about where corporate responsibility is going. Now, [it’s in] this kind of purpose phase, where we’re asking what can we do to make the communities where we operate and the world in total a better place through our behavior and what we stand for. We decided we would make our conference about that.”

corporate activism

Panelists at the 3BL Forum represented a wide variety of industries.

A ‘High-Octane’ Event

Held over two days in October at MGM National Harbor in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., the 2018 forum drew more than 300 attendees and 70 speakers. How did they squeeze that many speakers into that tight of a schedule frame? By timing it down to the minute.

Lynne D. Filderman

Lynne D. Filderman

“It’s very fast-paced,” said Lynne D. Filderman, senior vice president of business integration and strategic partnerships for 3BL Media, and executive producer of the forum. “I am of the belief that, if I give you 40 minutes on stage, you’ll take it. But if I tell you, you’ve got 15, you’re going to get to your point. What I wanted was to deliver a lot of content throughout the two days, and that’s what we did.”

Filderman took a number of steps to ensure that the schedule ran smoothly. Besides keeping most sessions between 10 and 20 minutes long, having “amazing” emcees helped, she said. “They keep it flowing. They keep it synthesized, they interact a little bit with the audience, and everything runs on time.”

Filderman also was careful to curate a speaker lineup that represented a wide range of industries, viewpoints, and issues. “We want to share with our audience that, no matter what industry they’re in, every company faces some of the exact same challenges,” Filderman said. “Whether that’s a challenge of having a sustainable supply chain or a challenge of wanting to scale impact globally, or how do you recruit and retain employees who have different expectations of their employers now. Or how do you deal with employees who want to make — and should make — their voices heard, and how does a company redefine itself so it’s purpose-driven? Every company, regardless of the industry, faces these same things.”

corporate activism

The 3BL Forum played with formats, including town hall style meetings as well as traditional speaker sessions.

Curated Thought Leadership

Besides setting a brisk pace, Filderman took a narrative approach to the agenda, weaving in themes and broader topics, with emcees threading the conversation and speakers spelling out the why and the how. She also sought out conversations with speakers ahead of time, “to curate and showcase their best thought leadership,” she said. For example, the panel discussion “Perspective from Legacy Companies: Innovations in Corporate Thinking,” included speakers from four very different companies — McCormick & Company, Smithfield Foods, Bridgestone Americas, and Rolland Fine Papers — and delved into how they, as companies with long histories, made changes for the better.

Since more than one-tenth of attendees were CEOs or from the C-suite, Filderman put together a panel discussion with CEOs that focused on innovation. She also experimented with new formats, adding a one-hour, town hall–style discussion focused on the forum’s theme, “Brands Taking Stands,” and what the future holds for the corporate activism movement. Speakers included Sherrie Deans, executive director for the National Basketball Players Association Foundation. and Eli Stokols, White House reporter for The Los Angeles Times.

“It turned out to be exceptional. I’ve never seen a group of 300-something people in the audience hanging on to every word for one hour,” said Filderman. “And it’s because of the panelists who brought in very different perspectives.”

“We weren’t doing it to be edgy, we were doing it to be helpful and instructive, and base it on research around this phenomenon of company activism,” Armon said. He added that having big issues like human rights and diversity and inclusion front and center on the agenda makes an impression on attending companies and organizations still considering how exactly they want to take a stand. “We’re in the process of lining up sponsors and speakers for next year, and I don’t think it’s going to slow down at all. A lot of potential partners love the idea that they can get best practices from companies that have been through this before.”

Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.

Increased Importance of Taking Stands

The Governance & Accountability (G&A) Institute found that 85 percent of companies in the S&P 500 Index published sustainability or corporate responsibility reports in 2017. In 2011, that number was just 20 percent.

“The actions of the super‑majority of the S&P 500 are especially encouraging in the wake of the decision of the current administration to begin the retreat on addressing climate change, reduce environmental protection measures, and ignore other important 21st-century measures of national progress,” Hank Boerner, chairman and co‑founder of the Institute, said in a report about the findings. “It is clear that the leaders of corporate America are acknowledging the realities of these challenges as they maintain a steady course toward greater corporate sustainability and the protection of the global society.”


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