A Guide for Going Beyond the Hashtag
Social media and activism have been inseparable since the 2010 Arab Spring demonstrations and since 2013, when the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was used for the first time. In both events, social media and hashtags played an instrumental role in mobilizing the human rights movement offline. They’ve gone on to inspire the rise of social activism including everything from #LoveWins to #TimesUp to #FridaysForFuture.
Until recently, social media activism has been somewhat optional for brands. It was only in 2018 that Nike made headlines for taking a stand with Colin Kaepernick. But the recent death of George Floyd at police hands has been a catalyst for many people and companies to examine their neutrality in the face of police brutality and systemic racism—and, consequently, turn to social media to express their support.
Participating in social activism is, first and foremost, the right thing to do. But there are also business benefits to doing the right thing. Nearly two-thirds of consumers believe it’s important for companies to take a stand on social issues. And for many, taking a stand is just the start. Consumers increasingly want companies to act with purpose, and have been rewarding those that do with three times faster growth than their competitors.
Whether you plan to support Black Lives Matter, climate activism, or another social justice cause, here are some tips on how you can take your social media activism beyond the hashtag.
Bonus: Get 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 a form of protest or advocacy for a cause that uses social media channels. Because hashtags play a central role in mobilizing movements, the term is often used interchangeably with hashtag activism.
It includes promoting awareness 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 offline action, gestures like using a hashtag or posting a black square come across as performative, opportunistic, and lazy. Critics are often quick to call out these minimal efforts as “slacktivism.” 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 do harm. There’s a word for that too: “woke washing.”
Can a company opt out of social media activism? Sure. But consumers notice, employees notice, and competitors notice. A recent poll from Morning Consult finds that the majority of people would see a brand that declines to make a statement in a less favourable light.
10 tips for using social media to show genuine support for a cause
1. Pause and review your social calendar
The first thing to do before engaging in social media activism is to hit pause.
Review your social calendar. If you use a social media scheduler, you’ll want to unschedule upcoming posts. Have faith that all the hard work that went into your perfect post wasn’t wasted. It’s just postponed for now. While things are on pause, take the time to learn about the movement you are considering joining.
Fenty Beauty, Glossier, Kotn, Nike, and Nickelodeon are just some examples of brands that halted promotional content at the onset of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. During the climate strike last September, brands like Patagonia, Lush, and Seventh Generation closed stores, “went dark” on social, and donated ad space to the movement. Before returning to regular programming, consider how your campaigns and content will resonate within the larger context.
Tomorrow, we’re closing our USA retail and e-commerce shops to march in the Global #ClimateStrikes, drawing attention to the state of the planet. For more info, visit ➡️ https://t.co/d3vjtqig3e#StrikeWithUs #climatestrikeUSA pic.twitter.com/X5I3htIPDp
— Lush North America (@lushcosmetics) September 19, 2019
- Try to profit from your support. Social movements are not marketing opportunities. And customers will be quick to call-out any action your brand takes that appears motivated by anything other than altruism and good faith.
2. Listen to what your customers need and feel
It’s normal for emotions to run high during social protests and human rights movements.
Use social listening to better understand how your audience is feeling. For example, with Brandwatch, Twitter found that the most prevalent sentiments around Black Lives Matter (as of June 7) were sadness, joy, disgust, anger, fear, and surprise.
Brands should express empathy and solidarity with negative sentiments, then rally their audience around positive sentiments with strong calls to action. This could include rallying followers to share messages, sign petitions, and match donations. Or in the case of Aerie’s advocacy for Mental Health Awareness month, remind people that they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.
An effective brand response to the Black Lives Matter movement came from Peloton. The fitness brand acknowledged the hurt of the Black community, expressed collective pain and solidarity. Then it backed this message by sharing four ways to walk the talk.
- 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.
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.
Like my tweet if a boss / former employer of yours who has denied you higher pay, the opportunity for a safer workplace, or publicly reprimanded you for calling our institutional racism has posted BLM this week.
— kimberly rose drew (@museummammy) June 6, 2020
Clothing retailer Reformation was pressured to reckon with its racist corporate culture after posting in support of Black Lives Matter. In response, the company issued a seven-page letter admitting to its failure to practice diversity and action plans moving forward.
“Don’t think your company’s history won’t be discovered and shared or pretend past hostile or detrimental employee experiences or company decisions don’t exist,” says Twitter’s global director of culture and community God-is Rivera and Twitter Next brand strategist Nicole Godreau.
Brands can either hold themselves accountable, or be held accountable.
- Hide issues and hope no one finds out about them. Address them head-on.
- Be afraid to be honest. Customers appreciate honesty.
4. Be human
Humanize your communication efforts. People can and do see through inauthentic behavior.
For example, overused phrases and carefully calibrated language tend to make company statements look templated. Put thought and consideration into what you want to say, but throw out the corporate jargon and canned content. Be real.
Don’t be this template below.
A statement from [Brand]® pic.twitter.com/XT9tXF9hvz
— Chris Franklin (@Campster) May 31, 2020
Companies are run by people for people. A recent survey by Morning Consult finds that messages sent from leaders to employees tend to have a better reception than those sent by faceless spokespeople and accounts.
Slack published a message its CEO sent to employees along with the thought process behind its decision to share it. Doing this showed that while the company did not have all the answers, there were at least people behind-the-scenes asking tough questions.
But now is not the time to remain silent. We value empathy and solidarity. We condemn the senseless violence against Black people and we condemn White supremacy. Here is what our CEO @stewart posted last week: pic.twitter.com/oZfs2cESiw
— Slack (@SlackHQ) June 2, 2020
- 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 firm
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. The company’s message in support of the Black Lives Matter movement cuts straight to the point: “We must dismantle White supremacy.”
As one commenter observed: “Ben and Jerry’s called it exactly how it is… They didn’t sugar coat it. They served it ice cold like their ice cream.”
The company also issued a lengthy statement titled “Silence is not an option,” that called for change in the wake of George Floyd’s death. People want brands to name names. Morning Consult’s survey finds 69% of people want brands to mention Floyd’s murder when talking about Black Lives Matter. Among the Gen Z members surveyed this ranked as the #1 thing brands should emphasize.
Outerwear brand Patagonia takes a similar tact with its climate justice activism, by directly calling out U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration.
“Our climate crisis is here and now, and we need global, urgent and transformative actions to address what is increasingly destructive and deadly.” pic.twitter.com/0E9KVGqjOl
— Patagonia (@patagonia) June 19, 2019
On the other hand, vague language can look sketchy. Influencer marketing agency Fohr posted a diversity breakdown of its last $9 million payouts. But commenters pointed out that the categories were confusing and without more detail, the numbers didn’t reveal much. “Nothing makes things worse than an empty explanation,” responded marketer and fashion influencer, Kelly Augustine. Fohr later hosted a town hall and shared more detail.
6. Share how you are taking action
People want to hear how brands are helping out, giving back, and tackling issues—beyond social media.
Show that your company is walking the talk. Which organizations are you donating to, and how much? Will you make regular contributions? How is your brand using this moment as an opportunity to do good within communities? Be specific. Share receipts.
Here’s how some brands have taken action for Black Lives Matter:
- Lego announced it would donate $4 million to “organizations dedicated to supporting black children and educating all children about racial equality.”
- Colourpop pledged multiple donations and encouraged followers to petition for change, call representatives and learn about the black experience.
- Restaurant chain &pizza will give employees paid time off for activism “for those unseen by this country to be seen, for those unheard by this government to be heard.”
- Ad agency 72andSunny gave employees Ta-Nehisi Coates’ best-selling book Between the World and Me as part of a new internal practice of discussing books, films, and podcasts about the “vastness of the black experience.”
- HBO made Watchmen, a show that deals with systemic racism in America, free for the weekend following Juneteenth. HBO Max pulled Civil War epic Gone With the Wind.
Other forms social activism:
- In support of #EndGunViolenceTogether, shoe brand TOMS made it possible for customers to send postcards to representatives right from their website.
- For #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth, Headspace offered a live mediation session and raised $200,000 for Mind Charity.
- To help make local issues like poverty, homelessness, and domestic violence #Unignorable, Pantone created a new colour for United Way.
- MaisonCléo broke down the price of a blouse to share how the company practices sustainability.
- Make empty promises. A recent poll from Cone Communications finds that 65% of Americans will research a company when it takes a stand to see if it’s being authentic.
7. Ensure your actions reflect your work 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.
That’s not to say you can’t show your support for a cause until your brand is 100% perfect. If your brand is not where it needs to be, share how it plans to get there.
Social “slacktivism” is what prompted UOMA Beauty founder Sharon Chuter to launch #PullUpOrShutUp. The initiative challenges brands to share detailed breakdowns of the number of Black individuals they employ at executive, corporate, or leadership levels. It also requests consumers refrain from shopping at brands that refuse to “pull up.”
Similarly, designer Aurora James’ #15PercentPledge asks retailers to look at diversity in their supplier network, too. The pledge calls on major retailers to dedicate 15% of their inventory space to Black-owned businesses in the U.S. and Canada. In a similar spirit, #TimesUpX2 asked studios and companies to take the 4% Challenge and increase the number of women, directing major studio films.
Universal Pictures’ Peter Cramer, Focus Features’ Peter Kujawski and DreamWorks Animation’s Margie Cohn proudly join their colleagues throughout the industry in accepting the #TIMESUP #4PercentChallenge. https://t.co/llVyB2W8Rn @TIMESUPNOW
— Universal Pictures (@UniversalPics) January 29, 2019
Brands shouldn’t have to buckle to diversity pledges. Diverse companies are more profitable. Diverse teams make better decisions. And consumers prefer companies that treat its people, the environment, and communities well.
DON’T: Take too long to follow through on commitments. Your customers and accounts like @silent_brands 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.
I am taking action. I’m researching every product made by Proctor & Gamble, throwing any I have in the trash, and never buying any of them again until everyone involved in this ad from top to bottom is fired and the company issues a public apology.
— Joe (@JoeS3678) January 14, 2019
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 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.
Nordstrom has been engaging with followers in the comment section of its Instagram. The retailer has been discussing everything from homophobia, to why #AllLivesMatter is harmful, and apologizing for past wrongs.
9. Diversify and represent
Diversity shouldn’t just be a box your brand checks during Pride month, International Women’s Day, or when #DisabledPeopleAreHot or #BlackLivesMatter is trending. If you support LGBTQ rights, gender equality, disability rights, and anti-racism, show that you do in your marketing too.
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 The Disability Collection. Hire diverse models and creatives. Remember that just about every movement is intersectional.
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.
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- Stereotype. Don’t cast people in roles that perpetuate negative or biased stereotypes. As Google’s chief marketing officer Lorraine Twohill writes: “Stereotypes are the fastest way to show users you don’t understand them.”
- 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.
I want y’all to care AFTER the protests have ended. That’s all.
— Dani Kwateng (@danikwateng) June 1, 2020
Commit to ongoing social activism and learning. Continue educating your brand and your employees and sharing helpful information with your audience.
Champion the cause offline, too. Perform non-optical allyship. Look for ways to support long-term change. Become a mentor. Volunteer. Donate your time. Help protestors remember to self-care.
Keep fighting for equity. Ask Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and other social media sites to better support and protect community members. North Face, Patagonia, Coca Cola, and Upwork are among the brands that are pausing promotions on Facebook as part of #StopHateForProfit, a movement that seeks to put pressure on Facebook to have stricter policies against hate speech on its platform. Unilever plans to halt ads on Twitter and Facebook for the rest of the year.
— The North Face (@thenorthface) June 19, 2020
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