What corporate actions supporting reproductive rights tells us about talent and brand management

We ask the industry to assess what recent cricitism and action again the reversal of the US Roe vs Wade law protecting abortion rights says about current corporate culture, the war for talent and consumer expectations of brands

Protestors outside the US Supreme Court following the reversal of the landmark 1973 Roe Versus Wade ruling
Protestors outside the US Supreme Court following the reversal of the landmark 1973 Roe Versus Wade ruling

Swift condemnation and action following the recent Roe versus Wade decision reversing the constitutional right of US women to abortion was absolutely necessary for brands claiming a people-first talent culture or support for people over profit, several industry commentators agree.

The US Supreme Court on 24 June 2022 overturned the landmark 1973 Roe versus Wade ruling that recognised a women’s constitutional right to abortion, triggering a wave of US states to quickly begin clamping down on or outlawing abortions. The decision has been denounced by US President, Joe Biden, as one that would dramatically change life for millions of women across American and only heighten polarisation across the country. It’s also been criticised by a wider spectrum of players, from abortion rights activists and groups to international leaders, organisations and individuals worldwide.

And actions were swift from a number of corporates operating in the US as they signalled support for reproductive rights. On the list of companies offering employees travel and accommodation reimbursement if facing restricted or banned abortions in their own state are Atlassian, Canva, Microsoft, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, The Walt Disney Company, Netflix, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Google, Salesforce, Amazon, Tesla, Patagonia, DoorDash, Airbnb, Starbucks and Conde Nast. CMO’s parent company, Foundry, has also adopted this policy.

The corporate list was certainly not all-encompassing however, and numerous media agencies highlighted organisations with sizeable US employee bases who stayed silent in the week following the news. These included McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, General Motors and Walmart.

Across the advertising industry, holding companies and agencies also voiced their support for employee reproductive rights and several put forth existing policies or planned for new ones to support staff affected. These include Omnicom, Dentsu, IPG and Publicis Groupe.

What these moves tell us about corporate culture

While the decision to support employees’ reproductive rights in this context has specific merits from a progressive people and culture point of view, it is also further indication of the shift brands are making to reflect the social, environmental and cultural values consumers increasingly expect them to exude.

Mediabrands CEO, Mark Coad, saw the responses to Roe versus Wade telling industry two things. “One is that companies have moved beyond just a fiscal bottom line to contribute more meaningfully as part of society, with environment, people inclusion and equity as the main components,” he told CMO.

“It also tells us how important it is to engage your teams by standing for something – the value alignment between the individual and the organisation can make a difference in the talent that comes in the door and stays with you.”

Coad rejected the term ‘pressure’ to describe growing expectation from consumers, shareholders and wider society for organisations to uphold corporate values and demonstrate social responsibility proactively. Instead, he argued it was important for businesses to make such responses when linked to their values of inclusion and wellbeing to their people. Mediabrands is updating its policies of support related to employees’ lives and wellbeing and is updating its Parental Leave Policy to include pregnancy termination or abortion.

“We don’t see it as pressure. It’s certainly a responsibility to our people, who often look to the leaders or ask us directly what we are doing as a company,” Coad said. “Values don’t stop and start within the company walls anymore as our policies and practices support people in and out of their work lives.

“These aspects of care and belonging are strategic priorities for businesses and their teams.” 

Innocean senior communications strategist, Charlotte Berry, was also unsurprised by these corporate responses given employee choice and our experiences of working during the pandemic.

“Working in the confines of our homes, faced with the very real threat of death and sickness marked a global reset. For many, it was a realisation that job stability doesn’t have to come at the expense of values, nor should it when we spend an average of 90,000 hours at work over our lifetime,” she said.

Berry also pointed to fresh Sprout Social data that showed company alignment with personal values is 74 per cent more important to consumers than it was in 2021.

“If businesses recruit talent by claiming their ‘people-first’ culture, or sell products using trendy inclusivity campaigns, now is the time to prove their messaging isn’t about capitalising off people for profit,” she said.

“In an era of democratised media, there is an expectation for businesses to have a point of view on political and social issues. So this week, when brands and their leaders began responding to the overturning of Roe, it seemed a flicker of hope in the darkness.”

Yet Berry was quick to highlight the difference between brand shtick and brand substance and noted how many American businesses stayed silent.

“These are notably some of the same businesses happily posting a black Instagram tile or making their logos rainbow. The businesses who have made statements have reflected inwards, taking action through the lens of healthcare policies - some not even using the term ‘abortion’,” she continued.

Of course, such goodwill is good business for highly visible, highly competitive industries given the war for talent.

“These companies trade on top brains in the country and around the world. Eight in 10 of the top talent adamantly did not want Roe overturned, and seven in 10 believe access to reproductive support including abortion should be covered in healthcare. This is the priority consideration when switching jobs according to the 2021 Tara Health Report,” Berry said. “So was responding necessary? Yes. To recruit talent and mitigate the brain drain from 50 per cent of American states.”

Affinity chief brand officer, Angela Smith, is a big believer in the intrinsic link between employee and brand experience and saw responses supporting reproductive rights as a good example of this in practice.

“Your employees are at the coal face when it comes to interactions with your customers, so there’s no doubt that action – or inaction – has the potential to impact on your brand,” she said. “But as to whether there is an imperative to stand for something; I think this still comes back to the values and purpose already established for the brand. What’s clear to me though, is in light of events like this and issues such as climate change and the Ukraine conflict, we’re only going to see more of it.”

Both Smith and Berry expressed concern with the limit of corporate efforts beyond blue chip companies and those in higher echelons of white-collar employment.

“Let’s be honest, the 280 characters will not impact the people who need help the most: The women living under the poverty line, on a desert island of red states, thousands of kilometres and dollars away from access to abortion. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough,” Berry said.

“The employees of blue-chip companies are less likely to be in need of support than those holding down two or three part-time roles in hospitality or retail, without college degrees and medical insurance. Some commentary and posturing rings hollow when you consider who the Court’s decision will really impact,” Smith added. “The real litmus test is what influence can they exert beyond their own corporate walls: What philanthropy or real support can they or will they offer the broader society that really needs it?

“That said, this is such a complex and important issue, merely having corporate voices on the record against this decision may be seen as win.”

Overt displays of affection

CMO also asked industry leaders if they believed such overt displays of corporate and brand support on a sensitive ethical and moral subject, not to mention the criticism it signals of legislated laws, would have occurred prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Yes, I think we would have,” Coad answered. “Corporate citizenship or goodness has been a rising requirement over the last decade. In the absence of adequate pace of change by governments globally, and with a new generation of workers who understand corporates have audiences and wealth to support change, companies have applied voice to issues for their people and communities.” 

Futurebrand CEO, Rich Curtis, positioned the outpouring of organisational and particularly individual support for those who have lost reproductive choice in the US as indicative of the wider shift towards more kindness and consideration for others in corporate and consumer culture today.

“In the way in which all these messages and written, whatever agency or corporation it is, there’s no kind of tagline or trade-off from a communications perspective,” he commented. “It was real and raw. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that insofar as there’s no kicker or hook. It’s very open communication telling you how it is and all we can do is empathise and support you in those situations.”

For Smith, the biggest repercussion of the pandemic was giving us time and space to reconsider work/life priorities.

“The practice of embedding more sustainable and socially responsible business practices has been around since the mid-2000s, when the UN suggested capital markets would benefit from playing a more active role in improving societal outcomes,” she pointed out. “But despite the thinking being around for a while, and increasing expectations from consumers and shareholders alike, take up still feels in its infancy.”

The trickier question Smith raises is if brands should take a stance on sensitive issues like abortion, and how public it needs to be.

“In any organisation, the challenge getting consensus on these issues is sometimes insurmountable thanks to being highly subjective and open to a variety of sources of the ‘truth’, whether it be abortion, the environment or equal rights. However, when an organisation’s brand purpose is consistently practised and clear to all, it should make sense when to act on extrinsic societal matters,” she said.

“Take Qantas’ strong advocacy for marriage equality in 2017, Apple going 100 per cent carbon neutral in 2020, Starbucks commitment to hiring 25,000 veterans by 2025, even JB Hi-Fi’s support for The Song Room.”

Action or inaction, there is going to be brand risk to weigh up. “Weighing up whether to do anything – and what that action might be – boils down to their ‘right to play’, lest they be accused of virtue signalling or worse,” Smith said.

“If a company has an established track record in actively supporting issues of public interest, then their actions should continue to reflect those same values and beliefs. But given the sensitivity and complexity of this issue, it would be a courageous, if not foolish, CEO wading into this particular issue as a first outing.

“Essentially, businesses need to be clear on ‘who’ they are, what they believe in, what matters to their people and what values they aspire to embody.”

But even the strongest brand values and playbook can’t completely guide the decision that still needs to be made around what to do and what to say in instances such as abortion rights. Berry noted the irony of Facebook’s response, by way of example. The company publicly supported employees’ interstate travel but restricted them contractually from discussing the topic at work, according to an internal memo leaked to The New York Times. The reason? To avoid hostility and division in the workplace.

“With 52 per cent of Americans in favour of Roe [Pew Research, May 2022], perhaps the stakes are too polarising when it comes to women’s bodily autonomy,” Berry said. “This isn’t about condemning brands for leading with social purpose, it’s about holding them accountable like we do any body of power.”

Innocean’s advice is to always be clear on the outcome you’re trying to achieve with every action, no matter how sensitive the situation.

“A brand or corporation needs to quickly assess if they will actually make a difference to the situation, or if they’re just jumping on the bandwagon to be seen as ‘doing the right thing’. Critics will be quick to call out virtue signalling,” Smith said. “But if the organisation has an existing record for supporting the given issue or responding in a similar vein, then they have a right to play. And indeed, perhaps there’s even an expectation within the minds of customers that they will get involved.”

Berry questioned whether criticism and actions following the Roe versus Wade legislation about-face were overt enough given the small number of American businesses that made statements.

“If brands truly want to make a difference, there is an expectation they match promises with action,” she said. “In 2020 when George Floyd was killed by the police, public businesses raised US$49 billion. Seventy-two Black business leaders published an open letter urging their fellow corporate leaders to publicly oppose any discriminatory legislation. And executives publicly criticised the law restricting voting rights, including Coca-Cola and Delta, who have remained silent.

“There are good, intelligent people in businesses. Changing healthcare policy is not enough. Publicly taking the stand to return the equal rights to women that have existed for 49 years is not a risk. It’s good for business, good for marketing and good for the economy.”

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