When companies and brands take a stand on “issues,” here’s a quick way to weigh the potential implications.

In recent years, companies and brands have found it increasingly difficult to navigate the PR waters in a politically polarized environment.

On the one hand, companies want to be seen as progressive and inclusive organizations.  On the other, there is concern about coming off as too controversial.

The environment is about as toxic as it’s ever been. In the “good old days,” companies were able to merrily avoid controversy by supporting universally agreed-upon “benign” causes.  But whereas in the 1970s or 1980s, celebrating Christmas or financially supporting the city’s symphony orchestra or fine art gallery was never faulted, today the situation is different.

Acknowledging a religious holiday risks criticism about offending non-believers or shortchanging people of other spiritual faiths. And dishing out dollars in support of “high culture” invites barbs about the need to divert those resources to more “socially woke” initiatives and away from “high culture” pursuits that speak to only a small slice of the general public.

The recent controversy with Nike and its Colin Kaepernick-inspired “Just Do It” campaign is another case in point. It may be a bit of a coin toss, but the conventional view is that Nike’s campaign was, on balance, a modest victory for the company in that more of the public was favorably disposed to it than put off by it.  And after a momentary dip in Nike’s share price, the stock recovered and ended up higher.

Less successful was Target’s move to direct its employees to forego wishing customers “Merry Christmas,” and instead use the more generic “Happy Holidays” greeting. Target decided to be “out front” with this issue compared to competitors like Wal-Mart.  But after several years of gamely attempting to enforce this guideline in the wake of negative customer reaction and a barrage of bad press on the talk shows, Target finally relented, quietly reverting to the traditional Xmas greeting.

Simply put, in the current cultural environment there are more risk-and-reward issues for brands than ever — and what actually happens as a result is often unpredictable.

And yet … surveys show that many consumers want brands to take overt stands on hot-button issues of the day.  Sometimes brands are just as criticized for not taking a stand on those very same hot-button issues — such as whether to adopt gun-free zones in office and retail spaces or deciding what kind of gun-related merchandise will be prohibited from being sold in their stores.

To deal with this increasingly gnarly challenge, recently the marketing technology company 4C Insights developed a “decision tree” exercise that’s elegantly simple. It’s a great “back of the napkin” way for a company to weigh the potential upside and downside factors of taking a stand on a socio-political issue that could potentially impact product sales, corporate reputation, or the company’s share price.

Here’s the 4C Insights cheat-sheet:

To my mind, the 4C Insights decision tree can be applied equally well to weighing a potentially controversial social or cultural issue in addition to a political one.

Indeed, it should be a ready-reference for any PR and marketing professional to pull out whenever issues of this kind come up for discussion.

In this environment, my guess is that it would be referenced quite frequently.