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Reflections from the International Women’s Forum 2017

International Women’s Forum 2017

Edelman Brussels' Aleksandra (Ola) Kozik was one of Edelman's International Women's Forum 2017 delegates in Stockholm recently. Read their blog post here: Solving today’s unprecedented challenges will require a completely new approach to leadership, one...

Edelman Brussels’ Aleksandra (Ola) Kozik was one of Edelman’s International Women’s Forum 2017 delegates in Stockholm recently. Read their blog post here:

Solving today’s unprecedented challenges will require a completely new approach to leadership, one in which women have a critical role in bringing new kinds of alliances together. That was one of the clear messages at the International Women’s Forum 2017, a gathering of more than 700 people from across business, government and NGOs that we attended as Edelman’s IWF delegates recently in Stockholm.

The event’s theme — sustainability — extended well beyond environmental concerns, with discussions covering everything from business to politics to pressing societal challenges. Session speakers pulled no punches in addressing what is required if we want to change the present global dynamics around issues like climate change, populism and human rights. But across every issue and every session, what struck us most as we took in these passionate debates was the simple, yet powerful concept that “partnership is the new leadership,” which took on increased meaning over the course of the two-day event.

Despite their diverse backgrounds — from a former UN Secretary General and Swedish Environmental Minister to company CEOs and activists — all agreed that it is only through genuine partnership that lasting solutions to the issues impacting our world can be found. Everyone has a part to play, and it’s not always the same role — but that’s as it should be. It’s more about being part of a solution rather than trying to “be the leader” and go it alone, which too many brands and individuals still try to do. Change that builds a truly sustainable world requires looking outward to see how to collaborate with disparate individuals or organizations, to carefully listen and learn from others to advance your thinking, and to realize that a business’s obligation is no longer only to its stakeholders.

In that context, Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili, vice president of the World Bank’s Africa Region and co-convenor of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, said something that is worth pondering: we need a more communal way of working and women, by nature, are typically more inclined to that approach. While this idea could be dismissed by some as a gross over-simplification, and is certainly as much a quality of character (whether you’re a man or a woman), it rings true for many women.

Clearly there still is a long way to go, though, to ensure more women are in the ranks. Despite the increase of women in leadership globally, the numbers are still appallingly poor; according to research gathered by UN Women, a global champion for gender equality, only 22.8 percent of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016. The Pew Research Center reports that as of 2017, the share of Fortune 500 female CEOs was a dismal 5.4 percent. When examining female board members across that same Fortune 500 audience, the number rises to a more promising 20.2 percent, but that’s barely a 10 percent increase from where we were 22 years ago in 1995 (9.6 percent).

As Edelman’s IWF delegates, we are quite proud to be part of an organization that actively works to increase the number of women in top leadership positions to 50 percent. There is an untapped potential in the power of female leadership and in embracing the power of “collaboration” rather than the “self.”

Regardless of gender, nationality or background, we each stand to benefit from embracing this “partnership = new leadership,” which can be applied at different levels:

  • Any brand, company, or non-profit can benefit from positioning itself as collaborative versus going it alone. One example is Swedfund. Owned by the Swedish state, it provides risk capital in emerging markets. Swedfund partnered with a multinational clothing-retail company on an initiative to improve the textile industry in Ethiopia. Their partnership strategy created workforce transformation that substantially improved quality of life, especially for female workers. Another synergistic example is the partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a global pharmaceutical company to revolutionize access to an injectable contraceptive for women in some of the world’s poorest countries.
  • As communications marketing professionals, we must ensure that we use the partnership/communal approach in the way we work within teams. We must always consider integrating external partners while building value for our clients.
  • Personally, we returned from IWF with more of an “activist” mindset. Inaction is often caused by people feeling that their actions will make no difference, which is a dangerous construct. We realize that WE can also do more as individuals to drive change, whether through partnerships with select organizations or simply by working together with other individuals looking to give time, attention and support to a cause that means something to them. We can act as agents of change.

Looking back on the event, the words of Dr. Ezekwesili remain fixed in our minds: “You only become voiceless by choice. Your voice must be used because you don’t have it just for yourself.” We move forward from here, charging ourselves to be active partners who drive change and create a more sustainable world for all.

Cathy Yue (Asia), Marisa Maldonado (Latin America), Nina Godard (Canada), Ola Kozik (Europe) and Rupa Patel (United States) were Edelman’s 2017 delegates to the International Women’s Forum.

5 Types of Activism Every Brand Should Prepare for in the Activist Economy

activist economy

How to balance value and values in the activist economy These days it’s virtually impossible to log on to Facebook or Twitter without a discussion unfolding around politics. In fact, it’s become common for people...

How to balance value and values in the activist economy

These days it’s virtually impossible to log on to Facebook or Twitter without a discussion unfolding around politics. In fact, it’s become common for people to take “breaks” from social media to limit their exposure to constant political controversies and social issues.

As a consumer, it’s difficult to remain neutral when it feels like everyone has taken a side. From a brand perspective, it’s not much different.

If there was a clear trend to emerge during this year’s Super Bowl—it was brand activism. From Airbnb to Audi to 84 Lumber, brands decided it was time to take a stand on issues dominating the societal discourse. In some cases, brand activism was cheered on by consumers, but backlash was just as common. Since 84 Lumber’s ad aired, the company’s CEO has worked to clarify that the ad wasn’t meant to support illegal immigration.

This situation goes far beyond the Super Bowl. Many brands have recently found themselves in the middle of political debates, and even if a brand isn’t taking a side—its consumers still are.

Welcome to the “activist economy,” where a brand’s value and values are now becoming intertwined and indistinguishable. And it’s not limited to consumers of brands, but also a brand’s employees, partners, representatives and even the brand itself.

In the activist economy, these societal issues will continue to penetrate the consumer consciousness in five key areas:

1. Consumer activism

Empowered by social media and fueled by political issues—consumers have the power to quickly organize, assemble, vocalize support or express dissent. For brands, these actions can help in the form of positive sentiment or hurt in the form of protests from the purse. For example, Uber reportedly lost more than 200,000 customers during the #DeleteUber consumer activist campaign because consumers were unhappy with the perception that the brand was unjustly benefitting from protests at airports across the country.

2. Brand activism

Much like consumer dynamics, societal and political issues are forcing brands to evaluate where they stand or risk leaving their position open to interpretation by consumers. The uptick in brands grappling with this emerging reality, either proactively or reactively, is symptomatic of larger societal shifts and realities including the re-emergence of populism, distrust in key institutions such as government and media, and world-shaping events like Trump’s election or Brexit.

Employees are consumers too, following issues that affect them while taking note of where their employers stand.

3. Employee activism

In today’s polarized environment, employees are also engaging on issues they care about. After all, employees are consumers too, following issues that affect them while taking note of where their employers stand. For too long, companies have ignored their employee base when it comes to communicating around key issues, whether it be taxes, immigration or trade, and this status quo is unsustainable as employees effortlessly toggle between concerned citizen and brand ambassador.

4. Spokesperson activism

From paid celebrities to influencers to corporate executives, today’s polarized environment heightens the scrutiny of people who act as the face of a brand in any capacity. YouTube and Disney both recently dropped deals with PewDiePie, the internet’s highest paid YouTuber, due to a controversy involving anti-Semitic rhetoric. In an activist economy, if you are compensated by a brand, consumers will hold you accountable. Equally, those representing the brand will hold the brand accountable when values are at odds.

5. Media activism

Polarization is reflected in media we consume in a landscape where we can find outlets and voices that reflect our world view and sensibilities, whether it’s The New Yorker, Fox News, Breitbart or The Huffington Post. Increasingly, this “self-selection” by consumers of media they agree with is symptomatic of trust issues with the media. Edelman’s Trust Barometer points out how trust in media is at an all-time low, and we can expect to see this self-selecting behavior continue.

If consumers, spokespeople, employees and media are all engaged in an activist economy, the implication for brands is multifaceted. A polarized environment will force brands to revisit their “value propositions” with the brand (and corporation’s) “values” and actions. For example, it is not enough to champion equal opportunities but not reflect this in the executive ranks or employee base.

A brand’s value proposition and values must be in lockstep now more than ever. So how can we evolve, promote and protect brands in this new activist economy?

Brands must be prepared to weigh in on a societal issue before it becomes a flashpoint. Having a playbook in advance will no longer be a “nice to have.”

In a polarized world where consumers are increasingly “taking sides,” it’s not enough for brands to simply link to societal issues to promote themselves or act quickly to defend the brand. They need to do both simultaneously. In addition, brands must be ready to ensure that the higher purpose of what they stand for aligns with how the company operates. For brands that find themselves navigating such fast-moving waters, the following construct will become essential:


Brands must be prepared to respond at a moment’s notice. Implement an “ABM” (Always Be Monitoring) approach not only for brand mentions on search and social, but for tangential issues that have potential impact. For example, Barilla (a client of my company, Edelman) has multiple listening rooms to monitor both brand mentions and issues as an early warning system. This monitoring should extend to communities offline where early signals help identify emerging issues before they become public.


In addition to being prepared, it’s important to consider the various issues that might offer opportunities for brands to take a stance on certain issues. The critical caveat is that societal issues should be relevant to the business. Before brands jump headfirst into taking a stance, several questions must be addressed:

  • Do we have a right to weigh in on a specific societal issue?
  • Do our core values align with our value proposition to the consumer/customer?
  • Who will we possibly alienate? Who doesn’t share the same values we do?


The current environment offers brands the opportunity to reimagine their own foundation for using both the societal and activist lenses as a blueprint for how their brand positioning needs to evolve. Patagonia, for example, refers to itself as “the activist company” and clearly articulates the societal issues it takes a stance on.  While this approach is certainly not right for all brands, many have yet to do this type of foundational work and still rely on brand equity through the traditional lens of the brand value proposition vs. how the brand values translate in a world prone to activism.

Brands can and will thrive in this polarized environment, but the intersection of what their value proposition means, how it’s articulated and and how it’s embodied must become one.

In addition, brands must be prepared to weigh in on societal issues before they become flash points. Having a playbook in advance will no longer just be “nice to have.” Consumers on any side of an issue will view their everyday interactions with brands through this fractured prism.

For brands, the activist economy will play out at the intersection of aligning a brand’s value proposition with living out the company’s values. For consumers, they will act accordingly to what resonates with their own.

Written by David Armano, Global Strategy Director, Edelman.

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