MAY 2023
Turn corporate activism into real action
Kai Miller
5 min read
April 12
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Kai Miller suggests how the chief of staff can ensure the authenticity of corporate involvement in social justice issues
June 2020 was a testing ground for many companies and organisations. Three months into COVID, the United States experienced a social justice upheaval rivalling some of the nation's most significant historical civil rights efforts. The death of George Floyd left many individuals and organisations searching for something, anything to say. Taking a stand seemed to become essential. Social media accounts were flooded with black squares, lengthy captions-turned-statements, and promises.
Even against this background, Ben and Jerry's stood out. The ice cream company tweeted 'WE MUST DISMANTLE WHITE SUPREMACY' with a caption reading 'The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy'.
While others focused on responding to an event, Ben and Jerry's was using its voice and platform to fulfil a decades-long commitment to social justice. In 2016, for example, the company shared its support for the Black Lives Matter movement and reparations for African Americans. Its website features extensive articles about systemic racism, the disproportionate number of Black Americans in the prison system, and the legacy of slavery. It employs a corporate activism manager and maintains a corporate department that advances social justice causes. It produces flavours such as 'Justice ReMix'd' and 'Pecan Resist', created an exhibit about criminal justice reform on its headquarters tour, forms long-term partnerships with grassroots organisations, and pays well above the minimum wage in its home state of Vermont.
While others focused on responding to an event, Ben and Jerry's was using its voice and platform to fulfil a decades-long commitment to social justice.
It is an understatement to say that the company is known for its activism. But how does this play into the role of the modern chief of staff (CoS)? 2020 was a microcosm, but it was also a glimpse of what was to come. From environmental issues to LGBTQIA+ rights to vaccine mandates and quarantines, corporate and shareholder activism is at a peak.

The problem of 'performative allyship'

That said, misaligned efforts or empty statements can actually detract from what the organisation is hoping to accomplish. 'Performative allyship' is easy to detect with a quick internet search. A company with a majority white male board of directors releasing carefully worded statements about race or women's issues invites scrutiny. And as employees in marginalised groups feel more empowered to speak out by today's environment, the lack of real policy or governance to back social media statements can crumble the most eloquent press release. Today's chief of staff must prepare their organisation for and advise their principals on the types of activism, whether they should be used, how to use them, and, in every instance possible, back activism with action. To do this, operational frameworks, processes, and groups like those in use at Ben and Jerry's are essential tools in the CoS toolkit. Pursuing individual or independent efforts is no longer enough: organisations must create integrated, holistic ways of putting their words into action. It is worth saying that the advice I will share here assumes that the CoS has already explored their personal beliefs and evaluated their own alignment to the decision-making mechanisms used in the organisation. As the 'centre of the hourglass', the CoS will seem disingentous to either employees or leadership if that introspection is not complete.

Think deeply about organisational values

The majority of organisations today will have something to say about their values and purpose. But too many of them go no further than decals on the office door and an earnest-sounding email signature. It is easy, also, to confuse the thinking required to produce brand values with the deep introspection necessary for the identification of shared moral values that form the basis of true activism (as opposing to 'speechivism'). Moral values are linked with an organisation's culture and often emerge with little deliberation or validation, but both of these are needed if your corporate social action is to be authentic - and not just another empty voice in a social media chorus.
Establishing a steady stream of input creates the inclusive environment that most organisations seek
So talk to the organisation's employees. They are the first wave of determining whether values and action are out of alignment. Involve team members in sourcing ideas for activism or even creating the strategies and action plans. Seek input from broad groups of employees on a routine basis and avoid the trap of event-driven feedback (e.g. seeking out LGBTQIA+ employees to plan Pride initiatives). Establishing a steady stream of input creates the inclusive environment that most organisations seek when they pursue social action. However, the chief of staff should be the initial sniff test and the advisory voice to leadership to ensure alignment between motivation and decisions. Common traps include surface-level action with a politically-driven reality or lame duck employee action committees that rarely receive corporate funding or real backing. With a unique position that allows access to both employee sentiment and corporate motivation, the CoS must be clear, and vocal in enforcing an honest assessment and alignment.
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Proceed to action

With the foundation established, the CoS can proceed to readiness activities. Effective messaging is a key element in corporate activism, and stakeholder empathy generates effectiveness in communication. Deeply understanding your stakeholders' feelings, beliefs, communication needs, and abilities to influence or affect change ensures that your messaging reaches the right constituent in the right way at the right time using the right platform. The next step on the pre-flight planning checklist is scenario planning. Think through possible ways in which the social justice issues best aligned to your organisation may emerge over the next year or two. What are routine ways in which those issues enter the global narrative? What are some of the worst-case examples? How will your organisation respond to them? What do you need from your principal, the broader leadership team, and the employee base to ensure appropriate and reasonable action? Hold honest and transparent planning activities with your leadership team. Get their feedback and engage them actively in scenario planning. Discourage them from considering activism as something that happens in addition to your business. In today's world, activism is closely entwined with every aspect of public and private sectors, and it is deeply emotional for most constituents. By being thorough in your planning, you can more rapidly respond when something emerges. By guiding a carefully integrated corporate approach to activism, social responsibility, and social justice, today's chief of staff can help their organisation avoid the need for damage control. They can also help their team respond rapidly, transparently, and appropriately to emerging issues by sharing the organisation's true activities. As you embark on all of this activity, however, remember the desired outcome: a genuine, meaningful approach to corporate activism and corporate responsibility. None of the steps above can be glossed over or simply 'filled in'. And throughout, the chief of staff can leverage their unique and forward-leaning position to affect real change.
Author Bio
Kai Fawn Miller
Chief Creative Officer, Emerald One Certified Chief of Staff®
Kai has over 20 years of leadership, communication, and outreach experience spanning public and private sector. She is a co-founder and the Chief Experience Officer of Emerald One, LLC, a 100% woman-owned small business specializing in leading executives and organizations through transformation. As Chief Experience Officer, she leads the company's strategic communications practice and provides one-on-one role-based coaching to current and rising Chiefs of Staff. She previously served as the Chief of Staff of the Office of Information and Technology at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and held varied positions in leadership and outreach at both VA and NASA in addition to founding three strategic communications and executive support organizations. Kai was awarded multiple federal commendations for her roles in managing the STS-107 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy and VA's largest digital transformation.
She completed The Chief of Staff Association's Chief of Staff Executive Certification programme at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
She is also certified by IDEO in Human-Centered Design, Storytelling for Influence, and Unlocking Creativity in Teams and is a ProSci certified Change Practitioner.