2021 Annenberg Survey results suggest the era of the bystander brand is over

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In 2020, the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Global Communication Report focused on the growth and influence of New Activism and its impact on public relations. That report suggested that a lack of faith in government is the primary accelerator of activism and that people expect businesses and brands to take on challenges that government is unwilling or unable to tackle.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and widespread protests after the murder of George Floyd last year, communicators “already working overtime to respond to the unprecedented demands created by the coronavirus, suddenly faced heightened expectations from employees and customers to engage on a whole new set of controversial topics, like systemic racism and police reform…”

A tumultuous political season and presidential election led the USC Center for PR to its next survey. The hypothesis of that study was that “even though polarization is driven by politics it’s primarily a communication problem, which should be addressed by professional communicators.”

USC Annenberg surveyed a mix of U.S. residents, PR professionals and journalists, yielding a wide range of insights (many of them disheartening).

Bracing for Impact

Consumers surveyed expect continued polarization, low levels of empathy for other groups, and a view by a significant majority that racism will remain about the same over the next several years. The alarming and unacceptable increase in violence against the AAPI community suggests this is, unfortunately, an accurate prediction. Interestingly, about 90% of respondents said their commitment to social change and level of political engagement would either stay the same or increase. People are entrenched in their positions.

For their part, communicators are bracing for continued consumer—and employee—demands that they take stands on social and related issues. They expect that “consumers will increasingly base their purchase decisions on their perception of their company’s values, as well as the character of their CEO.”

In all, “thirty-six percent of corporate communicators forecast that in the future their company will be more likely to take a public stand on societal issues,” and only about 20% said they would not engage.

Conversations That Matter

Hot topics identified for brands included climate change, racial equality, police reform, affordable healthcare and immigration. Diversity is also an area of focus for PR leaders, who committed to better hiring practices and more DEI training, noting that inclusiveness will be central to attracting new talent. (And we have a lot of work to do as an industry on this front.)

According to the report’s authors, “PR can facilitate constructive conversations between people with different opinions.” They provide some guidance on how to embrace this role, from active listening to inclusive language. They implore communicators to embrace purpose and lead with values—and argue that earned media will become increasingly important on this front.

I’m grateful to USC Annenberg for its ongoing work related to the role of communications in a world of heightened expectations. I’ve hardly scratched the surface here and encourage all communicators to dive in. One thing is clear: the era of the bystander brand is over.


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