Putting Social Activism on the Program

Organizations and companies are making social justice part of their event platform — and their identity.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

Outdoor Retailer trade show

The biannual outdoor industry tradeshow Outdoor Retailer, which will resume in person in August 2021, features The Camp, a dedicated space for attendees to discuss important issues.

When Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird took the virtual stage at this year’s PCMA Convening Leaders, the engaged couple, both U.S. Olympic gold medalists, spoke at length from their kitchen table about their trials as gay female athletes and the inspiration behind their fervent brand of activism. About a quarter of the way through their session, an attendee comment — “Why is this relevant?” — popped up in the chat box.

It’s a question that event planners may be fielding more often as they choose speakers and sessions addressing topics like social justice — which may seem unconnected to their professional or business organization’s core mission — to be part of their educational programming.

Rapinoe and Bird’s session was meant to be relevant for many reasons, but particularly now because the two embody a significant shift — an inflection point — in our history. Consumers are flocking to brands that are no longer silent about injustice and discrimination; it’s no longer strictly the purview of outspoken public figures. And those consumers expect the same of the associations they belong to and the events — in-person and virtual — that they attend.

Daniel Korschun

Daniel Korschun

“What we’re seeing is that more and more frequently, people are asking companies about how their actions impact society, and they’re doing it through the lens of their own personal political views,” Daniel Korschun, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, told Convene.

Did They Help? — a website that ranks companies according to their actions related to COVID-19, LGBTQ+ rights, and Black Lives Matter — has seen more than five million page views since launching in March 2020. And in February 2021, the Black Dollar Index (BDI) launched its site, which intends to monitor how well companies keep their pledges to upholding diversity by measuring factors like D&I efforts and the percentage of Black employees in leadership positions.

Employees are expecting more of the companies they work for, as well. According to a survey for Wunderman Thompson Intelligence’s recent “Generation Z: Building a Better Normal” report, 74 percent of young people say they refuse to work for a company that goes against their values.

Aside from this new public expectation, Korschun, who is also a fellow of LeBow’s Center for Corporate Reputation Management and the Center for Corporate Governance, attributes this shift to a domestic polarization that is pulling people towards opposite ends of the political spectrum. And these forces are pushing companies in ways that they never have before.

“People are saying, ‘Yes, I know there’s a risk, and maybe 20 years ago I would have run the other way,’” Korschun said. “‘But now I’m going to ride the risk, so to speak; I’m going to embrace it. And the right thing for us to do as a company is to state this publicly.’ And that’s one of the real defining features of this new brand activism, that companies are embracing it.”

‘Top-to-Bottom Alignment’

For some companies and organizations, this may be completely new territory. And for those who organize their meetings, incorporating this new kind of brand activism into their programs may feel tricky.

Tommy Goodwin has some advice. Goodwin is the new vice president of government affairs at the Exhibitions and Conferences Alliance (ECA), and has spent two decades managing government relations, public affairs, and issue advocacy for companies and associations like Oracle Corp., AARP, and the Project Management Institute (PMI), among others.

When companies and organizations choose to make activism part of their brand, he said, the motive should be authentic. It should also make sense as it relates to their overall mission. Activism, he says, can run the risk of appearing performative when done in a silo.

Tommy Goodwin

Tommy Goodwin

“Whether it’s your events or something else you’re doing, you have to stay consistent top-to-bottom in what you’re doing so that nobody can say, ‘You put out a statement about this but you’re really doing that,’” Goodwin said. “Because that’s the kind of thing that in the association world, lapsed members, nonmembers, disgruntled members latch onto and say, ‘That’s why I’m not part of that organization.’ Or on the corporate side, that’s where customers say, ‘That’s why I’m not going to buy from them anymore.’”

Activism and advocacy are ingrained in the branding of Outdoor Retailer, the largest outdoor industry trade show in North America, mirroring the industry’s own deep-rooted commitment to environmentalism. In 2018, owner Emerald Expositions relocated the biannual show from its 22-year-long home in Salt Lake City to Denver after Utah’s governor supported removing the national-monument designation for Bear Ears National Monument.

The legislation would have significantly reduced the size of the monument, and many in the outdoor industry saw it as an attack on public lands. “We’re advocating for these places that, without access to public lands, there’s no ability for the outdoor industry to thrive; there’s no ability for consumers to have a unique experience in the outdoor space if our public lands are under attack,” said Marisa Nicholson, senior vice president and show director at Emerald Expositions.

The move demonstrates the unique power business events wield in choosing to support, or not support, a destination in accordance with their values. And it’s a choice that, in Outdoor Retailer’s case, comes with a hefty price tag — its biannual shows represent an annual economic impact of more than $110 million.

Outdoor Retailer

“We don’t see ourselves as an organization that does a trade show for the outdoor industry, we see ourselves as an extension of the industry,” said Marisa Nicholson, senior vice president and show director at Emerald Expositions, of Outdoor Retailer.

Walk the Talk

When it comes to expanding brand activism into meetings and events themselves, sticking to a well-defined mission is a key starting point. It helps to imagine it as a foundational element as well as an incentive to walk the talk — or as Goodwin points out, where “you can go from making a statement to something more.”

Goodwin said to start by asking, “How are you aligning [with that message] so that at the end of the day, the event … is just another brand expression of what you already are?” he said. “It’s [about] trying to make sure that that organizational consistency is there, no matter what you do.”

The most obvious place to start is to consider the faces representing your events — keynote speakers and panelists, especially — and how they align with your organization’s values. “If you say, we are committed to advancing the cause [of diversity in] our profession, and I’m on a panel with three other white guys — are you or aren’t you?” Goodwin asked. “What is the lens you bring to putting that together so that you actually demonstrate this is the view we want members and the public to have,” he said, and that you’re “being thoughtful about it?”

More organizers seem to be already taking steps in this direction with their keynote speakers. “For sure, we have seen more groups focus on D&I,” said Timothy D. Mathy, senior partner at SpeakInc. Jeff Robbin, vice president at another speakers bureau, Leading Authorities, echoes that. “Without a doubt, there has been a huge increase in requests for speakers on those topics,” Robbin said. “Especially since June [2020], we are seeing the topic of corporate D&I and what companies can do to make their companies more inclusive and equitable. It is still very much tied back to business. We are also seeing clients asking for other topics (inspiration, business, tech), but with more of a focus on hiring women, women of color, and more diverse speakers to be able to share a different voice. We have spent a lot of time building out our roster to include incredible female speakers and diverse speakers who are experts in many different fields. Clients are really making this a priority.”

Outdoor Retailer’s Winter Online event in January 2021 provides such an example — Lindsay Peoples Wagner, co-founder of the Black in Fashion Council and at the time editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, made the keynote presentation. Nicholson said that her team often looks outside their own industry for a diversity of voices to lead their panels and educational sessions.

Goodwin added that it’s just as important to consider who not to include in your program. The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) learned this the hard way when Ivanka Trump was chosen as a keynote speaker for its CES 2020 program, which attracted 170,000 participants in Las Vegas Jan. 7–10. There were calls to boycott the event, with critics saying that it was the wrong choice given the event’s history of overlooking female leaders in the industry.

There are other areas where events must walk the talk, Goodwin said. For example, if you say that as an organization sustainability matters to you, he said, “are you willing to pay up a little bit more for a more environmentally friendly way to do things? That’s something where you can take the statement [or] press release and narrow it down into the event itself.” When you think about what a meeting’s legacy is,” he added, “it’s the long-term relationships with the host community — beyond the event.”

In Outdoor Retailer’s case, that has meant rethinking how shows are executed to keep in step with the industry’s “leave no trace” ethos. Two years ago, Outdoor Retailer shows successfully eliminated all plastic beverage bottles — no easy feat given the multiday winter and summer shows each see upwards of 25,000 attendees. It’s an achievement that took years of effort from all sides, facility and partners included, to afford attendees an alternative — Nalgene water bottles and refill stations — as well as rework the larger F&B puzzle, like concessions, at the show.

“It took a lot of work, but what was great was that, in talking with the Colorado Convention Center and Visit Denver, they also recognized that it was a good opportunity for them to take that step,” said Nicholson. “It became a partnership.”

She added: “We want to ensure that when we leave, we’ve left it as good or better than when we came in. That’s really important for us as a show organizer, as we’re looking at sustainability efforts that we’re doing with the impact of coming in with a large trade show, to ensure that we’re in lockstep with our industry.”

Outdoor Retailer

In 2019, Outdoor Retailer eliminated all plastic beverage bottles from its events. The company partners with Nalgene to offer reusable bottles and refill stations.

Brands Taking Stands

ECA’s Tommy Goodwin pointed to outdoor gear and clothing company REI as a prime example of companywide consistency in values. Through political advocacy, their #OptOutside Black Friday advertising campaign in which they give their employees Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving off, making grants to environmental causes, and supporting local nonprofit newsrooms, their actions are “core to who they are, top to bottom,” Goodwin said.

Similarly, Drexel University’s Daniel Korschun pointed to clothes retailer Patagonia as “the gold standard” for their approach to activism, especially as it relates to their longtime deep, unwavering support for environmental issues.

“As soon as the Trump administration came out with an executive order or pushed a certain type of legislation or change of policy, Patagonia would make statements in response on that same day, which is amazing,” Korschun said. “And it’s because they’re so consistent and so clear that that enabled them to be responsive in a very natural way.”

Patagonia even went so far as to sue President Trump for shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by nearly two million acres, an act President Biden has promised to reverse.

Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.

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