BY MIKE STEFANIAK, CHIEF STRATEGY OFFICER, HANSON DODGE
On Day 3 of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2018, I had the pleasure of moderating a lunchtime panel discussion titled “Navigating Brand Advocacy in Today’s Environment.” (The full session is available for viewing here.)
Outdoor brands and retailers have never shied away from advocacy: from playing an active role in important social and political issues. And the industry stands apart for its willingness to band together for the greater good.
In this lively and insightful session presented by the Outdoor Industry Association, four panelists representing a diverse set of organizations shared their do’s, don’ts and lessons learned. They also discussed their companies’ brand advocacy efforts:
Erin Gaines, Advocacy Manager for KEEN, spoke to KEEN’s “Live Monumental” campaign, a nationwide roadshow that aimed to drive attendance and support for U.S. national parks and monuments. More recently, KEEN launched its Call-To-Action campaign to make it easier for citizens to advocate for important issues by calling their representatives in Washington, D.C.
Dave Polivy, owner and CEO at independent retailer Tahoe Mountain Sports, talked about his involvement in a host of local and state issues. He was a vocal advocate for California’s recently approved Proposition 68, which authorized $4 billion in funding for concerns such as state and local parks, and environmental protection projects.
Alex Thompson, REI’s Vice President of Brand Stewardship and Impact, spoke to the values and beliefs that inspired REI’s landmark 2015 stand, “Opt Outside.” REI also added its voice to the fight to preserve the Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Abigail Wise, Outside Magazine’s Online Managing Editor, talked about Outside’s efforts to ensure that the publication is a platform for a diverse set of voices. That includes Abigail’s and her colleagues’ work to make sure women are equally represented among the publication’s writing staff and in its content.
Five keys to success
The net for session attendees? Whether you represent a manufacturer, a retailer or any other interest in the outdoor industry, it’s important to go into advocacy with your eyes wide open. Especially if you’re about to take a public stance on a contentious issue. Here are five specific and actionable suggestions that panelists shared with attendees during the session:
1. If you’re going to talk, be willing to listen. Getting involved in a more meaningful way inevitably means finding yourself in conversations with people on all sides of an issue.
Alex Thompson, REI - “I receive scores of letters about things that REI has done that people are [upset with]. My first response is to seek to understand. It’s very unlikely that the person who is writing to us or is sharing their concern is ‘wrong.’ They have an opinion. Our opinions may differ. But my first job is to be open-minded about where that motivation comes from….If you take the time to sit down and have a conversation and signal that you’re listening, great things happen.”
Erin Gaines, KEEN - “What KEEN learned...from our experience on the road talking to communities...is if you’re getting involved in these issues, you have to listen….There are going to be people who disagree with you on these types of campaigns and the advocacy that you do….The lesson we learned is that listening to people is really important….They’re contentious for a reason. It’s because both sides of an issue feel very strongly. We still...want to protect the places we live, work and play. But we want to make sure we’re doing it in a collaborative way—and in a way that’s productive and respectful of all of those opinions.”
2. Bring your people up to speed before you go public - Whether you work for a retailer, a manufacturer or any other organization involved in the outdoor industry, it’s critical to make sure the people who represent you out in the world aren’t blindsided by a stand you take on an important issue. If your colleagues know what’s coming and why, they’ll be in a better position to respond to naysayers in a respectful and productive manner.
Dave Polivy, Tahoe Mountain Sports - “Make sure your staff has a clue what you’re doing. I run my own show and sometimes take off without the pack. This process [of getting involved in issues] made me realize that you better make sure everybody on your team is aware of what’s going on. They don’t necessarily have to agree, they don’t have to be the most knowledgeable. But they should most certainly be aware, so if there’s blowback, or angry customers, they can provide that calming feeling….Having a plan in place to deal with that is great.”
3. Develop a strategy for dealing with social media trolls. Then execute it.
Abigail Wise, Outside Magazine - “We respond to nasty comments [on social media] only when it feels like there’s a constructive conversation to be had. We don’t delete a nasty comment...on Instagram right away. Because a lot of times, people will come in [to the thread] from the other side and defend us, and speak out against those trolls. So sometimes we just sit back and wait and see how it plays out. And if things get too nasty and people are being very, very hurtful, then we do delete those comments.”
Erin Gaines, KEEN - “You take the feedback and if you can have a good dialogue with someone—if you think it’s someone you can help educate on the issues—then you try to do that….Ultimately, if these issues are at the core of your values, which they are for KEEN for public lands and protections...we’re going to stand by them, despite nasty comments.”
4. Begin by building your credibility as a trusted member of the community. Get involved in your community, even if that means devoting your time to events and causes that have nothing to do with the outdoors. As people get to know you through your actions, they’ll be more likely to trust your words.
Dave Polivy, Tahoe Mountain Sports - “We do traditional events: avalanche education, how to pack your pack...but then we intermix a lot of that with some more issue-based events….On our traditional events, we always team up with a non-profit, generally one of our local non-profits.…We’re always trying to bring some sort of advocacy message, even to our most basic events. We give that organization some floor time….It helps to get the word out about what’s going on in community. And we’ve found that we’ve become a trusted messenger as we start to work within that event structure….I [also] do a lot of volunteer work….I know my community and have lived there almost 20 years, so I can speak their language.”
5. Accept the inevitability of blowback. If an issue is important enough to warrant your advocacy, there’s a good chance people who don’t share your views will respond with equal vigor—and sometimes, with venom. Accept this inevitability. Then prepare yourself and your organization to deal with what may happen if a stance you’re about to take alienates customers or other constituents.
Erin Gaines, KEEN - “Even signing your name on a letter can incite online backlash. You have to observe it, monitor it and see what it’s going to turn into. A lot of times it just fizzles. You just have to gauge where it’s going to go.”
Alex Thompson, REI - “If you choose as an organization to act on your beliefs, and put purpose at the front of your business or brand strategy, then you tend to alienate people. [If you’re] believing anything else, you’re telling yourself a story. The natural consequence of being engaged in civil discourse, and being part of the democratic process...is you’re going to please some people and displease others.”
Note: Some of the panelist comments above have been edited and/or consolidated in the interest of brevity.