Credit: Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images
July 10, 2022 7:30 AM EDT

State Farm, the insurer whose “Good Neighbor” campaign exudes unassuming friendliness, offers a case study in how to create a mess with your employees and with customers in a highly polarized political climate.

In late May, an organization called Consumers’ Research published an internal State Farm email encouraging its agents to engage in its partnership with The GenderCool Project, a youth-led advocacy group. The agents were given the opportunity to donate three LGBTQ+ books to their “local teacher, community center, or library of their choice.”

“State Farm is targeting your 5-year-old,” read the Consumers’ Research headline (the State Farm email discussed “conversations with children Age 5+”). The story was swiftly picked up by Fox News and the Libs of TikTok, the influential Twitter account that has emerged as a powerful force in right-wing media, and it wasn’t long before State Farm announced that it would no longer support the program.

“We do not support required curriculum in schools on this topic,” its statement said, adding that the company would continue to support organizations “that align with our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

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Consumers’ Research doubled down, demanding, among other things, a third-party audit of all State Farm’s programs geared toward children. GenderCool co-founder Gearah Goldstein says the State Farm fracas has triggered “an influx of new resources,” including support from “quite a few” State Farm employees. Others on the left said the about-face was proof that the company’s support of LGBTQ+ issues is purely performative. Through all of this, State Farm has continued to proclaim its support of the LGBTQ+ community. “Love is love,” it tweeted last month alongside a photo of a rainbow flag celebrating Pride Month.

Experts on corporate social responsibility described the situation as a disaster. “This is a company that has no clue who they are, and no strategy as to how to interact with society,” said Paul A. Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business who authored a Harvard Business Review article on when companies should speak up on social issues. A State Farm representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The challenges companies face in navigating social issues have only grown in our post-Roe v. Wade world. To understand the lessons organizations can learn from the State Farm situation, we reached out to Argenti and Alison Taylor, executive director of NYU Stern’s Ethical Systems, who is writing a book on how businesses can do the right thing in a turbulent world. They offered these insights:

Prepare to stand your ground.

There’s no denying that corporate ESG goals are now a prime target in the GOP culture wars. If it isn’t State Farm versus Consumers’ Research, it’s Disney versus DeSantis. “If you want to do something, look at the battle you are about to get into. Because whatever it is–the NGO, the Consumers’ Research–that group of people is going to come after you,” said Argenti. “Be prepared.”

Avoid knee-jerk reactions to news events.

Both Argenti and Taylor believe too many companies are issuing too many statements on too many causes that they can’t back up. A communications team may fire off a statement, for example, without examining their firms’ political lobbying activities (which may fly in the face of the stand). The result leaves employers vulnerable to criticism that their support is superficial and performative–and gives critics that much more weaponry to attack, leaving the companies, and the causes they care about, worse off.

“Some companies are using this ‘woke’ positioning as a branding exercise–they aren’t changing their political spending or what they’re doing–and this empty PR is exactly the problem,” Taylor said. “All it’s doing is further entering the destructive polarization spiral.”

Do the hard work of bringing different parts of your company together to identify those causes that truly reflect your organization.

Companies “need to get a group together to look at issues holistically,” Taylor said. “If you can’t act meaningfully, you can’t have your business speaking out. Get your ducks in a row.”

Is the issue “tied to your strategy, something legitimately important to your business? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you owe it to yourself to get involved and do something about it,” said Argenti.

You can’t have it all ways.

In announcing it was terminating its relationship with GenderCool while still touting LGBTQ+ issues, State Farm was “trying to still walk that fine line and pretend it’s all in, when in fact, it’s not when push comes to shove,” Argenti said. “That is the worst place to be in. You are in, or you are out. There is a special place in hell for companies unwilling or unable to take a legitimate stand and stick by it.”

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