PUBLIC Speaking: To Tweet or Not to Tweet – Our Take on the Telus Carbon Tax Controversy

Last week, Telus came out with a tweet in support of the federal government’s proposed carbon tax. Telus was one of the 22 Canadian business and social leaders who declared carbon pricing was “the most economically effective way to reduce emissions and stimulate clean innovation.”

The tweet sparked immediate controversy. Telus received responses from disgruntled customers who claimed they would take their business to alternative wireless providers. Later, Telus followed up with an apology tweet, saying they “had not meant to be partisan or political.”

The question: Did Telus need to apologize?

The apology made the company look hesitant to commit to their environmental stance despite the fact that they’re a corporate leader when it comes to environmental and community-building initiatives in Canada. Telus is in a position to proudly promote its record.

The bigger issue underlying the controversy is whether corporations should be taking a stance on the broader problems society faces at all. At PUBLIC, we believe wholeheartedly that companies like Telus should–both to build a better world and to build the bottom line.

A brand choosing to take a stance on a social issue is nothing new. When Coca-Cola released its world famous “I’d Like to Buy the World A Coke” spot in 1971, which was a direct nod to the peace movement, it was a defining moment in the brand and advertising space.

More recently, General Mills announced it strongly opposed a proposed amendment that would ban gay marriage in Minnesota. Many customers supported the sentiment, but it also led to some angry right-wing protesters. Ben and Jerry’s, who has a history of championing social justice issues, recently made major headlines when they released a declaration of unabashed support for Black Lives Matter, stating they were “refusing to be complicit in the face of injustice.” They didn’t reference their product (ice cream!) because they didn’t have to.

Brands leading the charge today are starting uncomfortable and socially relevant conversations about issues that matter. Investing in social license is a brand-building exercise to increase loyalty and gain new customers. It creates a positive halo around the brand that helps to build corporate reputation and trust.

Yes, making a social statement may cause backlash and result in a few angry customers. But companies who do not embed purpose into their business will get left behind. Consumers today are using their purchasing decisions to reflect their values and identify issues where they want to see real impact. The companies responding to these trends are gaining recognition in the marketplace.

The business case is increasingly clear, yet so many companies do nothing. It can be argued that one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to promote your brand is to take a stand on a social issue. Companies spend millions of dollars getting headlines, yet one single tweet from Telus made national news and sparked a real public conversation. For many, the fear and perceived risk of prompting any sort of debate is hindering the chance to connect with customers on a deeper level. In attempting not to offend anyone, brands run the risk of standing for nothing.

Companies today need to be activists and champions of the issues they stand for. The benefits far outweigh the risks, even if that means losing a few malcontents, naysayers and/or deniers along the way. Companies that succeed don’t ignore the issues–instead, they see these issues as a means for social and corporate innovation.

Holly Thornton is a PR Account Manager at PUBLIC Inc.

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