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How organizations decide whether to take a stand on social issues

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's Pride Month, and if you've noticed a few less rainbows and pride flags around, you're not imagining it. Many brands and stores, such as Target, have swapped their typical loud-and-proud marketing for more muted celebrations this year. Here's TikTok user Connor Clary taking note.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONNOR CLARY: Target did warn us this year's Pride collection would be scaled back due to the backlash of last year. And by that, I guess they meant they were creating merch so inconspicuous that it would also fit in if it were being sold at a small-town Midwestern Boutique shop. And it all seems to be based...

FADEL: Target says a drop in sales last year has led them to not put out as much Pride-themed merchandise this year.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But it's not just businesses choosing to be more careful about where they stand on issues. Last month, Harvard University said it would no longer issue statements on public issues that are not related to the school's core function. The statement came after weeks of protests across college campuses regarding the Israel-Hamas conflict. But to learn more about how organizations, educational institutions and companies are weighing taking a stance, we called Marcus Collins. He's a professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

MARCUS COLLINS: I think there's been a growing expectation from consumers or the public at large to get an understanding of where you stand on things, considering the technologies allow for more outlets for people to express their point of view in the world, project their identity. And as a result, the places that people consume, where they go to school, where they work, what they do - these things all become receipts of who they are. So I think that the expectation has always been there. They're just far more salient now that we have more means by which we could project our identity.

MARTIN: You think it's not so much that leaders are clamoring to take stances on things, but that consumers want them to. Maybe even their employees want them to. You think it's more like that?

COLLINS: Indeed. You see a lot of, even, you know, protests kind of around, hey, divest, make a statement, say something. We want you to condemn it. Like, we want some public expression, some conspicuous - show where you are on these matters so that I know if you're with me or against me and so that I know that the way that I'm living my life and what I consume and what I do are congruent with the way that I see the world.

MARTIN: It does seem that, after George Floyd was killed in police custody, a lot of organizations were saying, you know, Black Lives Matter or embracing that statement or making other kind of affirmative statements. Do you think that was kind of an inflection point?

COLLINS: Well, I think that it was a faux inflection point in that it became sort of a salient thought in the zeitgeist that this movement is where the country was going. So companies jumped in on it - right? - just like Pride Month. Before last year, Pride Month was a safe space to be, and it became sort of reflective of the zeitgeist. So brands and organizations felt very comfortable weighing in on it, celebrating and being a part of it, much like Black History Month. But the minute that those things are out of sync with the zeitgeist in any form of fashion, companies go, well, I don't want any of that smoke 'cause I don't want to potentially lose customers.

MARTIN: Harvard isn't the only institution that has now sort of declared it is not going to speak out on issues that it says are not quote-unquote, you know, "germane to its core function." What do you make of that statement?

COLLINS: I think they are practicing a risk-aversion strategy. They have been in hot water for quite a bit, and I think the idea here is just to mitigate risk - to mitigate the fallout. And I think that this is sort of the takeaway here. When things get uncomfortable when they are not convenient, organizations say, listen, we're not going to speak out about anything other than what we do.

MARTIN: The Harvard statement is lengthy. Obviously, we can't read it at all, but this is one of the lines that stood out to me. It said...

(Reading) There will be close cases where reasonable people disagree about whether a given issue is or is not directly related to the core function of the university. The university's policy in those situations should be to err on the side of avoiding official statements.

So is that what you mean by risk-aversion strategy or risk...

COLLINS: Exactly.

MARTIN: Yeah.

COLLINS: I think the challenge there, though, is that there is still a consequence because, when people feel like they are part of a community, like a university, and something is affecting them in such a broad public manner, and their community doesn't speak out on their behalf, they don't feel seen. You know, they say that, you know, silence from our supporters is, you know, worse than the violence of our enemies in some cases. In that matter, there is a negative consequence to all things.

MARTIN: I know you said that you thought that the George Floyd moment was like a faux inflection point. Do you think this, similarly, might be an inflection point?

COLLINS: I mean, it's no surprise that it's Pride Month, and Pride Month is really quiet this year. In a time where divisiveness seems to be at its apex, I think a lot of organizations and institutions are finding themselves erring on the side of staying quiet for the very reasons that we're talking about here.

MARTIN: That's Marcus Collins. He's a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. Professor Collins, thanks so much for sharing these insights with us.

COLLINS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.