Are businesses ready for the new age of amplified activism?

'Everyone is an activist.' Is this merely a slogan for the 'slacktivism' era or reflective of an age in which employees not only have a voice but also the ability to use it to dismantle existing institutions one Instagram post at a time, Nicola Kemp asks.

Folk Clothing wearable tech Protest Jacket by Brothers and Sisters
Folk Clothing wearable tech Protest Jacket by Brothers and Sisters

Activism has become a mainstream pursuit. A new era of people-powered transparency is challenging how businesses communicate with staff and consumers alike. 

Individuals’ amplified voices are reverberating, as employees empower themselves and educate their employers in the process. From the #MeToo movement to the nascent impact on legacy HR systems from apps such as virtual watercooler Fishbowl, the disparity between what a brand or business says it stands for and the experiences of its employees and consumers is becoming impossible to ignore. 

Activism is a tool through which consumers can define themselves and process the world around them, and it is a shift to which established businesses are struggling to adapt. Indeed, the power of this new breed of collective activism is only just beginning to be understood by brands. 

Sairah Ashman, global chief executive of Wolff Olins, says that until fairly recently, consumerism was defined from a sense of self and place, but now it is founded on activism. She explains: "The line between who we are at home and who we are at work is invisible, with a general shift away from asserting individuality to expressing authenticity." 

At the same time, social media provides the perfect platform to organise and influence at scale and speed. "Enough online protests and ‘likes’ can help bring down institutions and businesses," Ashman adds. "Doing this from the comfort of your sofa or a coffee shop isn’t lazy if it’s effective."

Connected activism 

Critics have often dismissed this fresh generation of activists as "slacktivists" – a click-bait criticism, which obscures the complex, creative and collaborative nature of this new wave. According to research findings in a recent JWT Intelligence Report, two out of three millennials believe that a person who has become aware of an issue and then spreads the word online is able to create more real change than a person on the street rallying and protesting. 

Another reason cries of "slacktivism" fall short is that they presume the choice consumers face is a binary one, when, in reality, the art of the street is being hugely amplified by social channels, with the two increasingly interlocked. The protest poster, for example, has found a vibrant new channel on Instagram. ›

Anna Whitehouse, author of Parenting the Sh*t out of Life, and a flexible-working campaigner, says that whether you applaud social media or despise it, there’s no denying that transparency is now the biggest currency. 

Culture is no longer something that sits in a manifesto in a Word document. Now, it’s about the idea of radical transparency
Victoria Buchanan, The Future Laboratory

"Companies cannot hide from criticism as easily as they could a decade ago. Whatever you call it – slacktivism or activism – this surely has to be a positive thing for employees, and for those consumers who are increasingly considering how a product is made, how a company treats its employees and the environmental costs associated," she argues. 

Operating under the Instagram name Mother Pukka, Whitehouse is one of a significant group of influencers who are also activists. In fact, the "authenticity" that so many brands look to achieve by partnering influencers is firmly rooted in activism. By standing for a cause bigger than simply showcasing a perfect lifestyle, allied to a seemingly endless range of products, these influencers are forging meaningful relationships with consumers because they are lobbying for real change in society.

Whitehouse pours her considerable energy into advocating flexible working in a campaign that lives beyond the curated pixels of Instagram. "I held a flash mob in Trafalgar Square to push for flexible working for everyone – not solely for parents, but for those who have to care for their elderly mothers. For those who have mental-health needs. For those who have a two-hour commute that’s driving them into the ground," she says. "My belief is that if you give an employee what they need, they are more likely to give you what you need as a business; it’s basic human nature. We had 876 people turn up for the flash mob and it was featured on BBC One’s The One Show. I wouldn’t say that’s slacktivism."

Fundamentally collective in nature, this type of campaigning has its roots in social media, but its impact can be felt across every aspect of consumers’ lives.

Victoria Buchanan, strategic researcher at The Future Laboratory, concurs that social media is a vital tool in modern-day campaigning. "It enables grass-roots activists to connect with each other, speak directly to the wider public and bypass the often stifling role of big institutions and mainstream media. Awareness and global context makes young people want to do more. But, crucially, it makes them want to be seen doing more," she says.

Radical transparency

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, it is tempting to lean on that most overused of marketing declarations and predict a watershed moment. This is on the basis that society is in the midst of a new movement, where an otherwise disparate group of individuals are collaborating with one another to build an inclusive and on-going ecosystem of activism that will forge meaningful and lasting change. 

Jamie Inman, head of planning at BMB, agrees that the current shift in society is seismic, but points out that the outcome is highly uncertain. "I see a fault line between the promise of enlightened working practices and the economic pressures driving casualisation and ‘juniorisation’ [of roles]," he says. "The ground-up energy is noticeable. Part of what makes it politically potent right now is that political parties on all sides are open, at least in theory, to acting on corporate malfeasance."

Yet Bridget Angear, joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, counters that it’s hard to know whether we are witnessing a profound shift. That, she says, is something that future historians will determine. However, she believes that there is evidence of a generation that has worked out ways to use social media for good, not just for fun. 

She explains: "The difference versus any other media that has gone before is of scale and speed. Social media has made it possible, in the words of Mr Trump, to create something ‘very, very big, very, very fast’. This speed sometimes catches out corporations with their old hierarchical structures, which don’t allow them to react quickly enough to events as they arise."

The action gap

The "action gap" between traditional hierarchical businesses and agile, transparent and immediate activism, powered by social media, has also highlighted a significant disconnection between the way businesses communicate with their employees and what their employees expect as individuals and consumers. 

The continued reliance on fundamentally de-humanised "corporate speak" and the drive to contain and conceal any bad behaviour is out of step with a consumer landscape that demands speed and raw sincerity. 

As Buchanan explains: "Culture is no longer something that sits in a manifesto in a Word document. Now it’s about the idea of radical transparency. Employees are holding businesses to account and, if businesses don’t deliver, they are setting up the [sort of] businesses they’d rather work for."

According to her, the idea of an internal culture that can be controlled through marketing no longer exists. In theory, every email or phone call could now be shared online, and, as has been seen in the past few months, toxic cultures are very much being exposed. Buchanan predicts that the most successful brands over the next decade will be the ones that recognise how this paradigm shift opens up new opportunities for them to place female traits at the centre of their operations.

The recognition that addressing society’s wider challenges is key to forging meaningful connections to consumers has moved from the conference circuit into tangible actions. From Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, who campaigned in favour of gay marriage in Australia, to Jigsaw’s pro-immigration campaign, marketing leadership aligned to shared values is paying dividends. "What was once risky and fringe is now mainstream," Ashman says. 

Collective creativity

The collective energy, creativity and unlimited ambition of this new wave of activism undoubtedly raises new challenges for brands and business. Yet it also offers a glimpse into what the world of work could look like if your employees actually cared about what it is they are doing. 

Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn and, arguably, the advertising industry’s greatest campaigner, says the answer to the challenge of activism is clear. "Companies need to look into themselves and identify their values – as opposed to [issuing] an empty mission statement – and attract employees on the basis of those shared values, demonstrate every day how they live them and encourage all their employees to love them too."

Gallop believes that this will enable employees to feel they are doing meaningful work and they no longer have to separate personal activism from what they are asked to do professionally. It will also enable HR to work for employees, not just the company, and be far more empathetic and values-driven than it currently is as a function. Additionally, it will allow marketers and agencies to promote brands to consumers on the basis of shared values. She adds: "In other words, shifting the focus from making good marketing, to making marketing good."

Reimagining HR

There is no question that today’s activist employees who feel that change is not forthcoming are quick to turn to social media to call out legacy thinking. The speed and scale of these platforms and the response they attract is often in stark contrast to the speed and tone of  most corporate people-management processes. Angear says the challenge for HR is to create an open, supportive culture, where people feel they can speak up, be heard and have their issue taken seriously. 

She describes it thus: "[It would be] a culture where any issues are dealt with, not ducked. Where changes that are made are profound, not superficial or token. And where the emphasis is on learning and development and progress." 

Most of the rules governing how we do business are inherited from ancient systems
Matt Charlton, chief executive of Brothers and Sisters

Angear adds that while this shift is easy to verbalise, it is not as easy to put into practice. Nonetheless, she insists that doing so is "vital if we are to learn anything from #MeToo". She goes on to conclude that you could argue that, in essence, everyone now has HR responsibilities and "a role to play in calling out bad behaviour and celebrating good".

Indeed, frustration with the status quo has formed the lynchpin of this new wave of activism. Matt Charlton, chief executive of Brothers and Sisters, says that most of the rules governing how we do business are inherited from ancient systems. 

However, when the world is changing at such pace, the rate of idea creation in any of the current structures is too slow. "The only real change that we have embraced is driven through technology, which we have had no choice in. So I think activism born from frustration is real and deserved," he explains.

Technology may have provided the platforms through which activists connect, create and build their networks, but the fundamental human drivers of activism – namely anger, frustration, hope and a passion for change – remain. 

We are in the midst of a raw movement, in a complex and, at times, contradictory ecosystem. Nonetheless, the question for legacy businesses resistant to change is a simple one – if not now, then when?