“The one thing … that is truly ugly is the climate of hate and intimidation, created by a noisy few, which makes the decent majority reluctant to air in public their views on anything controversial. … Where all pretend to be thinking alike, it’s likely that no one is thinking at all.” ―Edward Abbey
You have opinions. You’re allowed to express those opinions. But there’s sometimes a social pressure to appear neutral or impartial at the risk of losing customers, clients, fans, friends, or even family members.
Impartiality is not the same as objectivity. Impartiality is disengaging from the truth to not take sides and give up your ability to make value judgments. Objectivity is being guided to the truth by evidence and facts.
Being objective means that sometimes, based on the facts, you need to support a side.
Advocacy is not a niche industry for extremists. It’s not an industry at all. It’s a public right— for everyone. Yet a fear of causing offense, hurting relationships, deepening a social divide, or a lack of care keeps reasonable folks from having the courage to be public advocates.
When we stay silent because we’re afraid of facing the dissonance, we yield the world platform to those who can’t be reasoned with. And for our unprecedented ability to connect and dialogue in the modern day, we have little excuse to allow that to keep happening.
But you know this already. You’re here to be a better advocate.
If you’ve found it difficult to use your voice— your power and influence —as a business or brand for social goods, I have some ideas to make it easier for you.
1. Decide What You Stand For and Stand Firm
First of all, you should pick issues to support that are in alignment with your values. What is your business mission? How can you support the community while living out your business values?
Whatever issues you choose to advocate for, you need to be committed. Make sure you do the research and really inform yourself and your colleagues. And if you’re going to be a voice for an issue, you should be objectively acquiring facts.
So while your Facebook feed, your LinkedIn feed, and your Twitter feed might all have some very compelling dialogue, there is a lot of editorialization out there. Editorials certainly have their value, but it’s important to know and understand the facts yourself first and foremost so you can form your own opinion.
Ultimately, your advocacy plays a role in your reputation. Don’t stake your reputation on bad information, and don’t let your emotions control your ability to be factual and accurate. Snopes is your friend and my friend too.
2. Pick Your Battles
“Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am— a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure.” —Edward Abbey
There is an infinite number of causes for which you can advocate. Every bit of advocacy you do takes energy. You can go overboard with advocacy work, and it often happens to people who are very emotional and blended into the issue care about.
When Mike Brown was shot in the street of a northeastern St. Louis neighborhood by the police officer Darren Wilson, I was outraged and incredibly emotional. I became perpetually angry. I became so focused on advocating for black lives and advocating against police violence that I wrote out canned responses for people who disagreed with BLM and seeking out people whose values did not align with me to argue with them.
When I finally stepped back, I realized I had been investing too much emotion into the cause to a point where I was making myself unhappy. I also realized that I could be a much better advocate if I let go of some of my emotional attachment to the cause. By distancing myself a bit, I could make clearer and stronger arguments.
Don’t let yourself get so emotionally absorbed in an issue that you can’t advocate with a clear mind. Calibrate your emotions and be selective about the dialogue you choose to partake in. There will always be people that disagree with you, but their disagreement does not always necessitate a response from you.
Exercising the judgment of how and who to respond to (or not respond to) in disagreements can take practice. That’s why you have to get crafty with your words and very observant of your audience.
3. Craft Your Message / Read the Room
Have you ever said something in a room of people and then immediately regretted it? Not necessarily because what you said was wrong, but because what you said immediately made the space tenser. There’s a time to take a hard stand, but there’s also a time for diplomacy.
I always think about the scene from “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” when Dong, the Vietnamese student in Kimmy’s American GED class, says “So we work together for the common good, the same way Vietnam win the war of American Aggression.” And Kimmy responds, “Yes, but read the room, Dong,” —referencing the fact that he was making the US out to be the villain in the Vietnam war, whilst in a room full of Americans.
Dong wasn’t wrong— the US had no legitimate reason to get involved in Vietnam. But it certainly did not serve him to bring it up in that context.
Mind you, I’m not advocating you keep your mouth shut in situations where your thoughts and beliefs (or even true facts) may be unpopular. Very seldom is silence a viable option for effective advocacy. A better solution is to tinker with the way you communicate your opinions so the dialogue is more inviting.
The way you speak to your friends is not the same way you speak to your clients. And the way you speak to your clients is not the same way you speak to the public. You already instinctively change your messaging depending on the audience. The same applies to advocacy work.
For example, if you are an advocate for gun control and you want to post something on your business Facebook page in support of it in the wake of (yet another) mass shooting, you have to consider that you’re speaking to a wider audience, many of whom could be potential clients, brand advocates, or referral sources— and many of whom could have strong feelings of opposition to gun control. You have to craft your message in a way that invites those people who oppose you into the conversation about guns rather than alienate them.
I’m not a pro at this, and I still have plenty of practice to do myself, but I’m here to tell you that it is possible to have dialogue as a business owner with someone who disagrees with you and come away from that conversation still in staunch disagreement yet having maintained rapport.
Ultimately, you’re trying to connect with your audience and have your message resonate with them. Sure, it would be great to change minds and get people on board with your call to action, but if you can simply achieve resonance with your audience then that’s a win as an advocate.
But how exactly do you go about creating that resonance with your words?
4. It’s All About Storytelling
Being a better advocate means being a better listener. Period.
You’ve heard it said a hundred different ways:
“Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply”
“Listen with curiosity”
“The best way to learn is by listening”
“There’s a difference between listening and waiting your turn to speak”
At the end of the day, advocacy is a balancing act between speaking and listening. Because it’s true— you do learn more by listening.
And if you pick your battles, then sometimes all you do is listen.
Once I was at a networking event (a ribbon cutting for a Hooter’s, of all places) with this old Veteran man I very much respect. At some point, someone mentioned the name of a business he was boycotting. He began to rattle off a list of businesses that, in his mind, had done wrong to the Trump family and therefore he was no longer supporting them. Instead of tuning him out or challenging him, I just decided to listen. It was a good learning experience— I learned what he really cared about and also how much of influence businesses can have on people.
If you’re not seeking a broader understanding of the world around you, then how can you present your best message? How can you be the best advocate you can be without pursuing more perspective?
The more perspective you can get, the better stories you can tell. And that’s how you begin to resonate with people: storytelling. I just told you a story about a Veteran I was talking to at Hooter’s and you probably resonated with it at some point.
Storytelling is powerful. Even science says so. We’re literally wired for storytelling. As businesses, we have the power to influence others with the stories we tell. As advocates, we have the power to make a change with our stories. If there’s any way to get people to care and connect with your cause, it’s through storytelling.
Becoming an effective storyteller, just like an effective business owner, takes practice. Some people are simply more gifted at telling stories. If you’re not one of those people and you struggle with storytelling, there’s a free course on storytelling here which is a pretty nifty resource.
I encourage you to also check out this project by three women (one of them being Ilana Glazer, the co-star from Broad City) called The Generator Collective. This is a growing community where Americans share their stories on how they have been impacted by political policy— both positively and negatively. Their mission is “to help organize the noise of these policies into digestible, human stories, and overall lower the political barrier of entry.” Watching these videos that people submit is very inspiring and can help encourage you to tell your own story.
5. Prepare for Pushback
No matter what you advocate for, there’s always going to be someone that doesn’t like what you have to say. You can’t please everyone. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Chances are you’ll face some pushback. Chances are the reason you’re reluctant to become a public advocate in the first place is that you’ll face some pushback. My advice to you is to open yourself up to the feeling of dissonance that can come with politically charged conversation. That dissonance is always there whether you choose to avoid it or not, so you might as well learn to embrace it.
Pushback is okay. It’s an opportunity to dialogue. It’s up to you to practice handling these situations with tact and an appropriate amount of emotional distance.
There’s always something to learn from these conversations. (Yes, even when the person you’re arguing with is dead wrong and stubborn.) Look for a lesson in every dialogue.
6. Start With Small Acts of Advocacy
Some of this work probably sounds pretty daunting, but you don’t have to do it alone. There are plenty of businesses out here also wanting to be better advocates.
There are Facebook groups and networking groups you can join for support. The local Chambers of Commerce are great to get involved in. You can also join local committees for action. Networking and getting to know people in your community is what makes your voice stronger.
You also don’t have to be an outspoken, protest-attending, sign-holding, righteous chanting campaigner to be a good advocate. Effective advocacy starts with action, no matter how small. Here are just a few ways your business can start to advocate for issues you care about:
Spread the word— Generating some buzz via a blog, vlog, podcast, some form of traditional media, or social media is a great way to create awareness for issues you care about. The simple fact of people knowing you support a particular cause will catch some attention. Remember the position of influence you are in as a business owner.
Put your money where your mouth is— Talking about it is good, but if you’re a for-profit business, it’s more meaningful when you invest money in a cause. However, be sure to do your research before you donate your money anywhere. Charities and non-profit organizations aren’t always transparent about where your money is going. Just verify that you’re investing in a reputable organization before the fact.
Participate in the democratic process— Behind every business is a citizen(s) that care(s) about something. Use your status as a citizen to call or write letters to legislators, to spread a petition, to go to a town hall meeting.
Serve the community— This one’s my fave. Nothing says “I lead by example” more than serving a community. Volunteering is advocacy work. When you volunteer at the homeless shelter, you’re advocating for the humanity of homeless people. When you volunteer to pick up trash by the highway, you’re advocating for a cleaner environment. Apart from talking about it, this is probably the easiest way to advocate for a cause.
Remember that as our own bosses, we have more power than we would if we were in the employ of someone else. We aren’t limited by corporate rules or policies, so we have the ability to speak out on behalf of our businesses. That is truly suasive. Use your voice and your influence as a voice for good. You can do this. You can help make our world a better place with your business.