Don’t Become the Woking Dead

May 11, 2023

Bud Light. Disney. Mars Wrigley. Dilbert. The Super Mario Bros movie. Victoria’s Secret. Utah’s proposed new state flag. BlackRock. The U.S. military. Legos. Jack Daniels. Even Chick-fil-A. Accusations of “wokeness” have been flung far and wide so far in 2023. Is your company next? Are you ready?

Defining “woke” is about as easy as folding soup. Its meaning and applications have shifted rapidly, twisting its original socially progressive 1970s roots into a pejorative battle cry for socially conservative warriors. Understanding the threat to corporate reputations is a bit easier, but even this is often misunderstood because it’s not about being labeled as “woke.” 

Reputation damage arises not from being mocked by outsiders but instead from one or these self-inflicted wounds:

  • The company made a half-hearted effort to support a cause, upsetting the cause’s supporters. 
  • It made a tone-deaf effort to engage on an issue, earning swift ridicule from various directions, or
  • Most damagingly, it took a principled stand but quickly walked it back when it started taking heat.

Instead of alienating one group of people, a company mismanages its way to alienating two or more groups of people. They in turn vent their outrage on social media. Landing here places the company among the woking dead, shambling around with its reputation in tatters. 

Wide Awoke in Dreamland

Let’s put the label “woke” and the anti-woke movement into a broader reputation context. They are just another form of social risk – exposure to adverse consequences when a company fails to meet the public’s expectations based not on its products but instead its stances on societal issues. Companies and brands have been under increasing public pressure, particularly from younger generations, to show support for addressing racial justice, LGBTQ rights, climate change and other social issues. 

The anti-woke movement is the (inevitable) backlash against companies’ fulfilling those expectations to take stands on issues. Regardless of the motivations of those applying the “woke” label, the goal is to apply public pressure to change whatever stance the company chose to take. Changing that stance is often more damaging than riding it out.

Fundamentally, social risk drives people to question the company’s values, motivations and sense of purpose. Therefore, the only appropriate responses to claims of wokeness, as with any social risk, must align with the company’s mission and values. Not what other people think those are – what the company knows they are. You (should) know what you stand for as a company or brand. That’s your starting point. 

Don’t Woke the Plank

While there is no way to shield your company from accusations of wokeness, there are ways to make sure your company does not compound its reputation threat by unforced errors. Here are five we have found are the most beneficial.

Let mission and values inform your engagement. Authenticity is critical when it comes to engaging on social issues. Your stance needs to align with your company’s values. Since you’re going to be criticized, make sure your position is authentic. This empowers you to use the criticism as a means of highlighting your values in addition to the cause you’re supporting. Don’t apologize for living your values – celebrate it!

Know who’s most important to you and what they expect of you. Listen before you speak. Maintain open lines of communication to core customers, employees and other people whose trust and opinion you value. What are they saying about social issues? Clarity on who and what’s important not only makes it easier to decide how to respond to an issue but also makes you faster. 

Be willing to withstand periodic criticism from your non-core customers to support issues important to your core customers. A big mistake in defending reputations is to put too much emphasis on appeasing the haters. Build your strategy around the people who are important to you, and watch the haters lose interest when they find another woke thing that outrages them.

Be in it for the long haul. If you make a stand, commit. Not just to the stand itself, but to taking actions that address the issue. Set goals, track progress, report the positives, own the shortcomings and highlight your heroes going above and beyond to bring about change. No one expects you to solve global problems, but you can make a meaningful difference in your own offices, storefronts and communities. Remember that any step forward is a step forward. 

For Heaven’s sake, don’t let your first foray into an issue be on social media. Whether and how your company takes a stand should not be decided by a low-level marketing person in isolation. You need a deliberate process based on the company’s values and real-time feedback from those who matter most to the company. Then you need a plan not only for communicating your stance but also for taking action. 

Woke This Way

Need help? Kith facilitates social risk workshops that will help your company align on values, establish processes for taking stands on issues and create productive feedback loops so you know where you stand with the people who matter most.

After all, if you’re going to be accused of being “woke,” then make sure it’s because you’re doing right by your values and your people. 

Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.