Does the ‘war on woke’ make you worry about communicating positive change?

Another week and another series of stories about being ‘woke’.

Headlines this week include the Government appointing a minister to lead its anti-woke agenda, a charity going “too woke” after leaving Christmas off an internal calendar and a company that has started to fly a “woke-free zone” flag outside its headquarters.

With so much coverage and division centred on the W word, is it better to avoid communicating issues and positive changes that some may feel are controversial?

Let’s start by looking at how the National Trust found itself in the media and social media spotlight again this week.

‘Tis the season for ‘Christmas is cancelled’ stories (it comes around earlier every year, doesn’t it?), and sections of the media have latched on to a story about the charity creating a calendar that excludes Christmas and Easter but includes other religious festivals.

The ‘inclusivity and inclusion’ calendar reportedly includes Diwali, Eid and Ramadan, but no Christian holidays.

The charity explained the document is internal guidance used to supplement its year-round programming.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), complete with a picture of decorations on a Christmas tree, it said: “We're hearing rumours that we've cancelled Christmas! If you've heard that too, don't worry. Our celebration for 2023 has only just begun, and you can find out more about what we're planning at the link below. PS. It's still printed in all the calendars in our shop, too.”

Asked why it wasn’t included in the ‘inclusivity calendar’, it replied: “The Inclusion and Wellbeing Calendar is an internal resource specifically designed as a supplement to our year-round programming that includes Christmas and Easter, which are celebrated at all properties.”

Nicely done. But the explanation has not been enough to prevent angry headlines.

‘Why wouldn’t you include Christmas?!’ Fury as National Trust excludes Christian holidays from calendar GB News

Christmas and Easter excluded from National Trust’s ‘inclusion’ calendar Telegraph

Members claim National Trust has gone 'too woke' after launching charity calendar that excludes Christmas and Easter - but includes other religions' festivals Daily Mail

At the other end of the woke spectrum, a company in Wales has been gaining some media interest after deciding to fly a “woke free zone” flag outside its headquarters.

Net World Sports, a sports equipment retailer, flies the flag outside its Wrexham base, where around 200 people work.

The company has been criticised for showing a “complete lack of inclusivity”.

But the flag has been defended by boss Alex Loven.

“It’s more than reasonable to question the value of the cloak of wokeness that has enveloped all parts of society from education to mainstream media,” he said.

"Simply put, we question whether the woke narrative is aiding the development of young people and it would be completely disingenuous to say otherwise if we don’t believe in it.”

He also went on to talk about having a business “shooting through the stars”, powering through “galaxy after galaxy” and having nurtured trailblazers “who are both the astronauts and mission control of Net World”, which some might argue sounds a bit woke.

Anyway, here are some of the headlines:

Company criticised for 'offensive' 'woke-free zone' flag flying outside new headquarters Daily Mirror

Company flies 'woke-free zone' flag outside its headquarters Wales Online

Amid these stories, there has also been a Government reshuffle – yes, another one – where Esther McVey has reportedly been tasked with leading the Government’s anti-woke agenda, acting as a “common sense tsar”.

Maybe the new common sense guru could look at why the National Trust has to spend its time defending itself from confected outrage over a non-issue, including from the TV channel where she is a presenter.

One of the fascinating things about the woke debate is the way the word is applied so widely. It has become a catch-all word for the media and commentators to describe anything they don’t like.

Don’t like Gary Lineker sharing his views on social media? It’s because he’s gone woke. Unhappy that your bank is suggesting ways you can lower your carbon footprint by changing your shopping habits? That’s because it has gone woke. Angered that a beer company is working with a transgender influencer? Yep, that’s the bitter taste of wokeness.

But ‘woke’ is defined as being “aware of social and political issues, especially racism,” which you could argue raises questions about whether Net World Sports’ HR department is aware of the flag it is proudly flying, let alone the reputational issues surrounding the move.

The AP Stylebook was recently updated with advice on using the word ‘woke’. It says the word is a “slang term that originally described enlightenment or awakening about issues of racial and other forms of social justice. Some people and groups, especially conservatives, now use it in a derogatory sense implying what they see as overreactions.”

What is clear is that the meaning of woke has evolved.

And with the constant stream of negative stories surrounding it, you can see why brands may feel cautious and uncomfortable communicating things that could create a better, kinder, greener world.

Will people think you are woke? Will you face negative headlines? Could you experience a social media backlash? Could your brand’s intentions result in you being in crisis media management mode?

You must look beyond the lazy headlines, coverage and social media posts.

Because on the other side, the evidence suggests we do want brands that raise relevant issues and try to make things better.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, which revealed businesses are regarded as considerably more competent and ethical than government, shows 63 per cent of respondents buy or advocate brands based on their beliefs and values.

It also reveals people want more societal engagement from businesses on issues like climate change and economic inequality. And they want CEOs to take a public stand on these topics and discrimination, immigration, and treatment of employees.

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But it is not without risk.

There will always be detractors and critics. If you go back to the bank account example I mentioned earlier and the advice NatWest offers to people to live more sustainably, it is an opt-in feature that people can just as easily opt-out from. There’s no great woke intrusion despite what the headlines might say.

The key consideration is whether those critics are your audience and whether what they say matters. My gut feeling is that you either like that banking feature or are indifferent to it. It is hard to imagine people refusing to bank with NatWest because it offers an optional tool to help you see the impact of their spending on the climate.

If you do communicate your views – and it is not for every brand - stay the course. That might sound frightening. But backing down when faced with a backlash can damage reputations, credibility and bottom lines.

When Bud Light worked with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, it quickly backtracked, causing more outrage and upsetting more people. And when US retailer Target removed LGBT pride merchandise and displays from its stores following a backlash, sales fell by 5.4 per cent over the following three months.

As with all crisis media management incidents, the key to emerging from a woke backlash is to have a plan that enables you to manage the fallout, respond quickly and communicate your position – just like National Trust.

Will we get cancelled for praising them?


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