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Should Your Brand Take a Stand? Luvvie Ajayi Jones Offers Useful Advice

Has there ever been a year in which marketers felt so compelled to respond to headlines – and so conflicted about whether and how to speak up? 2020 may have been extra intense, but the pressure on brands to take a stand won’t disappear in 2021.

Self-described “professional troublemaker” Luvvie Ajayi Jones offered useful advice for navigating these impulses in her keynote presentation, Speaking Truth to Power, at Content Marketing World 2020.

If the thought of taking advice from a troublemaker makes you uncomfortable, that’s OK. Luvvie teaches us to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” (as she named her popular 2017 TedTalk).

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, says @Luvvie via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

But don’t worry. Luvvie’s advice comes from lessons she learned doing the work content marketers do every day.

She started her professional career as a marketing coordinator who wrote a humor and culture blog as a hobby. Over time, she built an audience by consistently delivering straight-talking observations about the world around her.

When laid off from her job in 2010, Luvvie used her marketing background to launch an independent career as a blogger, speaker, and author. In 2018, her first book, 2016’s I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual, debuted at the No. 5 spot on The New York Times bestselling list. Her second, Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual, comes out in March. Like many content marketers, she hosts a podcast (Rants & Randomness). She launched a community, LuvvNation, which has more than 13,000 members. And Luvvie, along with her fellow co-founders of the #ShareTheMicNow and #KeepSharingThe Mic campaigns, earned the 2020 B2C Content Marketer of the Year award.

I gathered some of her advice here, including a simple rubric for evaluating when to speak up, plus ways to cope if your or your team’s impulse is not to.

How to decide when and whether to speak up

Impulsively blurting out your truth of the moment isn’t necessarily the best option. Nor is entering a conversation as a brand – no matter how well-intentioned – without thinking it through.

Luvvie’s decision-making formula can work for both brands and individuals. Ask these three questions:

  1. Do I (or does the brand) mean it? Do you believe in what you’re thinking of saying, or are you chiming in only to disrupt or be part of the conversation?
  2. Can I/the brand defend it? If you’re challenging something, you have to be OK with being challenged. If you can’t defend or justify your position, you probably shouldn’t air it.
  3. Can I/the brand say it thoughtfully or with love? How you communicate a message affects how it lands. This is also a good checkpoint to make sure that you’re thinking about the humanity of the person who will receive this message, Luvvie says.
Before you speak, ask: Do we mean it? Can we defend it? Can we say it thoughtfully? @Luvvie via @CMIContent #CMWorld Share on X

If you answer yes to all three, you have a responsibility to speak out, Luvvie says, even though there’s no guarantee the message will be received as you meant it.

That’s the point of her rubric – to save your truth telling for the moments that matter. And when it does matter, Luvvie says, “Your job is to say it in the best way possible. However it lands after that, you can deal with it.”

Telling the truth isn’t easy for anyone

If you think truth telling is easier for a personal brand than for a corporate (or even nonprofit) brand, Luvvie wants you to know that’s not so.

“I could show up tomorrow and say, ‘You know what, today I’m not going to be a truth teller,’” she says. “It’s a moment-by-moment decision we make to stand up and elevate and challenge the things that aren’t OK. And the truth is scary even for those of us … who’ve been practicing for a long time.”

Saying nothing costs something

Nearly every brand marketer, agency, and content creator can name missteps from brands whose attempts to enter a current conversation went wrong: the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, Starbucks’ Race Together campaign, Burger King’s #FeelYourWay, Gilette’s The Best Men Can Be, DiGiornia’s #WhyIStayed tweet, and the list goes on.

It’s easy to ascribe these missteps to a flawed strategy, lack of audience understanding, or a credibility deficit on the issue. But it’s also a person or several who didn’t tell the truth.

“Every time a company has major backlash over something they did publicly, like when they put out an ad that wasn’t thoughtful at all, (I think), ‘Who was the person who knew that this would not go well but did not speak up?’” Luvvie says.

How to encourage truth telling on your team

Far from excoriating the people who stayed silent, Luvvie suggests understanding what kept them from speaking out.

In most cases, she says, their reasons fall into one of these categories:

  • They feel like it’s not their responsibility or purview.
  • They want to say something but fear the consequences.
  • They feel like they’re always the one to speak up and they decide to stay silent for a change.

And all these reasons are perfectly valid, Luvvie acknowledges, but that doesn’t make them any less detrimental to the outcome for the team or brand.

Luckily, each excuse has an antidote.

Counter the not-my-department mindset

It might feel safer in the moment to keep silent because you think it’s not your responsibility or place, but Luvvie says that’s a false sense of security: “If my neighbor’s house was on fire and I say, ‘Well, not my house,’ what happens if the smoke and the fire reach my house right next door? Then who helps me put out my fire? I thought it wasn’t my business, but it quickly became my business.”

As for brand missteps, Luvvie asks, “What if that commercial goes nuts, the backlash comes, and the company actually suffers a financial loss because of it? Now they have to make cuts in your department … maybe even you.”

If you’re a team leader, it’s your responsibility to encourage people to speak up for the good of the team, campaign, or brand as a whole.

If you’re a team leader, it’s your responsibility to encourage people to speak up for the good of the team, campaign, or brand as a whole, says @KMoutsos via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

Counter the fear of negative consequences

It’s also your responsibility to shoulder the burden of making people feel (and be) safe enough to speak out.

Luvvie says the fear of consequences is especially prevalent among people in marginalized groups. She encourages people in leadership to make sure those with less power can speak up without fear of losing their jobs.

“We can use our power to make sure they have more of a voice, more access, more power to be able to say something,” she says. “The intern who is afraid, ‘If I speak up, I might get fired,’ … should not feel like they need to be the ones to lay themselves on the line. The vice president of the department should put themselves on the line.”

That means, if you are a person who has standing at the company, you have the responsibility to speak up even when afraid of losing something. “If you’re the person who’s been at the company for 15 years and has amazing job security, what’s the consequence you’re afraid of?” Luvvie asks.

She suggests working through the worst-case scenarios. Will you be embarrassed? Will HR write you up? Or will you be fired and unable to support yourself and the people who depend on you?

Luvvie’s question: If that last worst-case scenario isn’t likely, what are you afraid of? “If we’re constantly in our best-case scenarios because of the fear of the worst-case scenario, we’re not going to have a great world because we are afraid of whatever consequence might come,” she says.

Counter the truth teller’s day off

As Luvvie says, truth telling is hard and sometimes scary work. It’s understandable that fatigue can set in. That’s why you need to cultivate more than one truth teller.

“My hope is that if one truth teller decides to be quiet that day, another rises up and says, ‘I’m going to take the baton today,’” Luvvie says.

And maybe that truth teller needs to be you. “We shouldn’t constantly depend on other people to do the jobs we should be doing. We’re constantly waiting for Superman or Superwoman when we also have red capes. We’ve got to start using our red capes,” she says.

Here’s an excerpt from Luvvie’s talk:

This article originally was written for CCO magazine. Subscribe to the digital magazine today.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute