Pop goddess Taylor Swift has put her head above the political parapet, despite the risk of alienating her fans. But should IC teams take a similarly bold stance on topics that divide audiences?
In her Netflix documentary ‘Miss Americana’, Taylor Swift shares how she dealt with the delicate balance of being a role model with an audience of 1.2million followers on Instagram alone, and having an opinion on a highly divisive topic: politics.
We watch her building on her own experience of sexual harassment and unwanted male attention (including a fan who broke into her flat and slept in her bed). She battles with wanting to speak up about the political race in her home state of Tennessee, but not alienate her fans.
Predecessors of hers – the Dixie Chicks – faced career-ending backlash thanks to an offhand comment about President Bush. And Taylor’s own team guide her against saying anything at all: ‘my worry is that you’ll sell 50% fewer tickets to her next tour’.
In the end, the weight of guilt about not speaking up outweighed the risk of losing fans. ‘I want to be on the right side of history’ she emotionally declared. She decided to make a statement in favour of one of the candidates, which led to a series of outcomes.
Some were positive: a significant spike in voter registration, new-found respect from fans from marginalised backgrounds, and a personal burden lifted.
Others were negative: harsh criticism from the conservative media, Donald Trump declaring he now liked her music ‘25% less'and, ultimately, the failure to secure the election outcome she so desperately wanted.
Nevertheless, she continues to sell music and concert tickets.
The fears of her team are, I thought, representative of the concerns of comms teams across the world. There are some topics that are fundamentally risky to talk to about, and just happen to share a very similar ratio: 48/52.
In the UK, the 48/52 divide between leave and remain highlighted a fundamental division in our political opinions. In the recent impeachment trial in the US, 48 senators voted against Donald Trump, while 52 voted to acquit him. In these two countries at least, the political landscape is almost perfectly evenly split. For anyone in communications, this is a risk.
I perceived the reaction to Brexit as one of pragmatic tolerance. The result was what it was – whether or not you agreed with it – and all IC teams could do was communicate the plan to deal with it. Generally, this is the safest approach when it comes to communicating issues relating to politics. Our governments will be what they will be – it's up to business leaders to define a strategy to respond to the circumstances we find ourselves in, and up to internal communicators to engage people in this plan. It isn’t our role to layer on any emotion or opinion to this.
Women make up 49.5% of the global population. In the UK, there’s a 49/51 male:female ratio. Today, gender equality has never been a hotter topic - both in the workplace and in society in general. Feminism is a word on the lips of women and men alike, and debates around transgender rights have added another layer of nuance to the conversation.
From a communication standpoint, it’s another delicate balance. Putting too much focus on women’s right is undoubtedly going to alienate, or even threaten, men. The fast-tracking or promotion of women to senior positions – in a well-meaning attempt to redress the prevailing imbalance – can have the unintended consequence of those women feeling like they are only there because of their gender, or unfair accusations of positive discrimination from their peers. And trying to craft messages that represent all women is a fruitless endeavour: how can one story, video or podcast ever be representative of half the population?
The very best strategies I’ve seen for tackling gender imbalance involve bringing together men and women who believe in gender equality and working together to remove the institutional barriers that prevent a truly equal workplace.
So how can we safely communicate these topics?
1) Draw the line.
Know where your remit as communicators starts and ends. In most cases, your audience will appreciate objectivity over persuasion. Communicating the action you’re taking is less controversial than communicating opinions or intent.
2) Define ‘truth’.
There is a difference between ‘the truth’ and ‘my truth’. ‘My truth’ is my perspective based on my background, my circumstances and my experience. It’s ok to amplify the ‘truths’ of individuals in your organisation – as long as you make the distinction that it may not necessarily be ‘the truth’.
3) Communicate something.
Leaving a void is risky. Communicating something is better than communicating nothing – even on sensitive subjects like politics and gender. If you don’t have all the answers – say so! And if you know your communication isn’t representative of everyone, then it’s better to state that.
Your role as an internal communications professional is to know your audience better than anyone.
Through the feedback you gather, you’ll know what resonates and roughly what the split of opinion is within your organisation. This insight empowers you as a gatekeeper – preventing potentially harmful messages reaching your people and making sure that tricky topics can be surfaced sensitively and constructively.
Taylor Swift is a role model to her audience. She knew what outcome she wanted to achieve by making a statement and used her voice to express her truth. She understood that her viewpoint wouldn’t resonate with everyone but decided that speaking up was better than allowing the void to be filled with more dangerous rhetoric and rumours.
As communicators, we are also role models within our organisation. It almost certainly isn’t appropriate to follow Taylor’s example directly and declare a strong political preference or leaning towards only one side of the gender debate. But there are important lessons that we can take from her approach to speaking up about a delicate topic.
In work, as in personal life, believe what you believe, but never enforce those beliefs on others.