How Will BLM Change Corporate Activism?

How Will BLM Change Corporate Activism?

  • Case
  • Teaching Notes

As widespread protests in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement continue to fill streets of major U.S. cities, many corporations and brands are scrambling to pledge advocacy through corporate activism initiatives and to release public relations statements in support of BLM. This case asks students to review and discuss these efforts.

Learning Outcomes

Students should apply their learning in corporate social responsibility (CSR), ethics, and marketing to evaluate corporate activism in the context of recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) uprisings. Student should discuss the role of corporate activism, how companies can more actively align themselves with the goals of BLM, and whether public relations and marketing strategy are compatible with effective and authentic CSR.

The Issue

With a reinvigorated push for racial equity and social justice occurring in the United States, many companies are looking into creating or ramping up CSR initiatives. Amid public demand for greater corporate accountability, corporations and brands that have traditionally eschewed taking a stance on social or political issues for fear of alienating customers or facing public backlash are finding that staying silent is simply not good business. In the face of increased public scrutiny, corporations looking to integrate CSR are having to reconcile with their past actions—or inactions—or else risk angering a large consumer base for hypocrisy and dissonance.

Why Is It News?

After the murder of George Floyd in police custody, the BLM movement saw renewed support to end systemic racism, challenging corporations to rise to the occasion. While nearly every celebrity, brand, business, or corporation took to social media to say they supported the movement, not all backed these statements with measurable action items. Many used PR and marketing tactics to make their company seem supportive, effectively virtue-signaling or piggybacking on the movement as a sort of low-cost tokenism.

Both consumers and employees were quick to catch on. After tweeting their support of BLM, for example, L’Oréal had to come to grips with its own racist past, being forced to apologize for firing a Black transgender model for speaking out against white supremacy. Similarly, employees of The Wing, a women’s coworking space and social club, organized a digital staff walkout and countered the company’s pro-BLM messaging with allegations that the company had failed to provide a healthy and safe working environment for employees and members of color.

Direct action from corporations supporting BLM took on a number of forms: Nike repurposed its slogan with a “For once, Don’t Do It” advertisement on racism; Disney made a deal with Colin Kaepernick for a series on race to be directed and produced by people of color; PepsiCo retired the Aunt Jemima brand; Netflix shifted some of their cash holdings to banks and credit unions serving Black communities; and IBM stopped facial recognition software development because of its racial bias and unregulated use by police.

Video 1. Nike’s BLM Commercial

Many other companies joined the movement by celebrating Juneteenth, completing internal reviews on the racial makeup of their workforce, looking at the terminology or imagery they use, pledging for a more diverse workforce or product space in the future, and donating large sums of money to BLM causes. Still, with protests ongoing, it remains to be seen whether these pledges to CSR and racial equity are temporary salves or if they’re indicative of sincere commitments to long-term structural change.

Discussion Questions
  • What are some benefits of corporations speaking out in favor of social issues? What are possible pitfalls and how can these be avoided?
  • Pick one business/industry and brainstorm specific actions they could or should take to support BLM. Should these actions focus on products, the workforce, supply chain, marketing, a combination of these, or something else entirely?
  • What is the difference between CSR or corporate activism and PR strategy or marketing? Can a balance be struck between the two?

This case was prepared for inclusion in SAGE Business Cases primarily as a basis for classroom discussion or self-study, and is not meant to illustrate either effective or ineffective management styles. Nothing herein shall be deemed to be an endorsement of any kind. This case is for scholarly, educational, or personal use only within your university, and cannot be forwarded outside the university or used for other commercial purposes.

2020 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved

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