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The OCR Glossary

Corporate Advocacy

Barbara M. Miller

Corporate advocacy is becoming an increasingly common business strategy. Corporate advocacy, or issue advocacy sponsored by a business or corporation, can broadly be considered a form of issues management as it involves strategic communication to emphasize a business’s position regarding social or public policy issues. Many campaigns arise in response to burgeoning societal concerns that may result in low credibility and trust among segments of an organization’s audience, as in cases where a business’s products or production processes are seen as harmful or risky. Unlike traditional marketing, which focuses on promoting a business’s products or services to existing or potential customers, corporate advocacy campaigns are typically initiated to influence public opinion, policy debates, and/or legislative outcomes by communicating an organization’s stance on an issue or policy.

Issue advocacy campaigns in general, including corporate advocacy, utilize both public relations and advertising techniques and can be classified into marketplace, political, and values advocacy. While political advocacy focuses on support or opposition for a public policy or candidate, marketplace advocacy, an increasingly prevalent form of corporate advocacy, is designed to encourage public acceptance of a product, service, or industry sector. The term marketplace advocacy is commonly used by trade industries (e.g., the American Chemistry Council, the American Forest and Paper Association, and the American Medical Association) to describe strategic communication efforts to confront barriers to the industry and influence public policy. Values advocacy, meanwhile, associates an organization with accepted societal values. While one type of advocacy may predominate, most issue advocacy campaigns typically include multiple advocacy strategies.

Corporate advocacy campaigns typically involve marketplace and/or political objectives with a values-based message strategy. For example, a corporate marketplace advocacy campaign may focus on promoting the benefits of a product or industry to society, particularly its contribution to economic health and prosperity, through values-based messaging, while addressing and/or minimizing the risks associated with the product or industry to protect the business’s position in the marketplace. Meanwhile, the same corporate advocacy campaign may be designed to influence public policy, including avoiding or opposing government regulation and reducing the potential for government intervention in corporate activities that could negatively affect a business’s financial interests (thus representing both marketplace and political advocacy objectives).

Corporate advocacy campaigns utilizing a values-based persuasion strategy usually include brief and selective references to corporate activities and issues of public concern, while praising societal values, condemning oppositional values, and/or associating the business or industry with worthwhile societal goals. Its simplistic nature, and appeal to commonly shared values, often serves to distract attention from serious questions about public issues. Corporate advocacy that communicates a reassuring values message rather than directly engaging stakeholders on issues of public concern may be an effective means of both image building and influencing policy because of its ability to persuade without seeming to do so.

This entry examines the rise of corporate advocacy and the target audiences of corporate advocacy. It considers whether corporate advocacy is a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR), public service, or social marketing and its presence in today’s media environment. The entry concludes by emphasizing the importance of corporate accountability, trust, and ethical considerations.

The Rise of Corporate Advocacy

Despite its recent proliferation, this form of communication is not a recent phenomenon. Corporate advocacy has existed, in some form or another, since the initiation of corporate institutional advertising in the early 1900s. In 1908, for example, AT&T engaged in issue advertising promoting the need for a regulated, monopolistic national telephone network. In the 1930s, corporate advocacy became a common strategy for responding to attacks on business due to unemployment during the Depression. Campaigns were often used to promote industry and the free enterprise system.

Yet it was the political and social changes of the late 1960s and early 1970s that are often credited with the rise of corporate advocacy campaigns among many businesses and industries. As public and media criticism regarding a variety of political, environmental, and social issues gained a foothold in the mainstream United States, businesses began looking for ways to defend themselves against perceived news bias. By the mid- to late 1970s, corporate advocacy by many industry giants was commonplace, including Allied Chemical (regarding business profits and pollution controls), Bethlehem Steel (explaining the cost of pollution controls), Marathon Oil (regarding the impact of taxes and controls), and Pennwalt Corporation (in support of the competitive enterprise system).

Corporate Advocacy Sponsors and Target Audiences

Corporate advocacy campaigns may be launched by a single corporate sponsor, such as General Electric’s “Ecomagination” campaign to promote its commitment to developing clean technology and sustainable infrastructure, while emphasizing the company’s environmentally friendly practices and products. Campaigns may also be sponsored by an industry trade group representing the collective interests of the sector, such as the Corn Refiners Association’s “Sweet Surprise” campaign (highlighting the benefits of high-fructose corn syrup) and the Council for Biotechnology’s “Good Ideas Are Growing” campaign (explaining the advantages of producing crops through biotechnology).

As public interest in energy and the environment have increased, corporate campaigns designed to address concerns regarding the environmental impacts of a business may now represent a significant portion of all corporate advocacy campaigns. Examples include corporate-sponsored campaigns from DuPont (“Open Science”) and British Petroleum (“Beyond Petroleum”) and industry trade group–sponsored campaigns by the American Petroleum Institute (“Energy Tomorrow”) and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (“America’s Power”).

Target audiences for corporate advocacy campaigns vary based on campaign objectives, including whether public concern for business risks—and subsequent potential regulation—exists at the state, national, or international level. Campaigns may target regional audiences (the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers’ “Foundation for Energy Education” campaign and the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s “Energy to Fuel Our Future” campaign), national audiences (American Plastics Council’s “Plastics Make It Possible” campaign), or international audiences (Dow Chemical Company’s “The Human Element” and Chevron Corporation’s “Real Issues” and “Human Energy” campaigns).

Is Corporate Advocacy CSR, Public Service, or Social Marketing?

Many businesses engaged in corporate advocacy campaigns highlight their efforts under the umbrella of CSR, and indeed, some campaigns include elements of CSR. Both corporate advocacy and CSR portray a company as responsive to—and concerned with—the needs of the society on which it depends. CSR, however, represents a broader category of business operations that includes the economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic expectations a society has of organizations at a given time.

In some instances, particularly in response to environmental or health concerns, corporate advocacy may even resemble public service campaigns in promoting a common good, or social marketing campaigns when they are used to encourage behaviors in pursuit of a social goal. In addition to these broad goals for the common good, however, corporate advocacy efforts also protect or promote the market for the company’s products. Coca-Cola’s “Coming Together” campaign was designed to fight obesity, yet it also protects the company from concerns and potential regulation of the soft drink industry. Likewise, an industry-sponsored effort announced in 2014 accomplishes similar objectives; Coca-Cola joined forces with other soft drink manufacturers and the American Beverage Association in a campaign, titled “Mixify,” to promote balance in calorie consumption and physical activity.

Corporate Advocacy in Today’s Media Environment

Today’s globalized and mediatized environment offers stakeholders constant updates of news and information from a variety of sources, ranging from 24-hour news channels to Twitter and live blogging. Social media networks and mobile phones, in particular, provide an unlimited avenue for the public to vocalize their thoughts and opinions on business activities. Customers and stakeholders alike are coming to expect corporations to respond not only to public concerns raised in the traditional news media but to issues and rumors raised in online media as well, regardless of the technical merit of those concerns.

As public and media attention on social and political issues can significantly affect a corporation’s bottom line in much the same way as a crisis or falsely circulated rumor might, corporate advocacy serves as a means for businesses to create and maintain a favorable reputation, which can potentially serve as a buffer with regard to social issues and future policy. Unlike crisis communication, however, corporate advocacy campaigns are generally launched in times of noncrisis. Through ongoing, proactive communication, corporate advocacy encourages the public to focus their attention on that which reflects favorably on the corporation (or industry) while minimizing that which might raise concern. Furthermore, by avoiding commenting directly on controversial issues, corporate advocacy provides a nonconfrontational means of engaging audiences. Ultimately, corporate advocacy may serve to protect a business from boycotts, pressure from activist groups, potential or pending legislation, and/or government regulation.

Emphasizing Corporate Accountability and Trust

An inherent demand often associated with heightened media scrutiny is the call for greater transparency in business activities, and empirical research in corporate advocacy points to the fundamental role of stakeholder perceptions of corporate accountability and trust in the advocacy message in generating a favorable response to the advocacy efforts. These findings are important for businesses engaged in corporate advocacy to consider as, oftentimes, corporations may purposefully limit references to specific corporate activities to avoid discussion of controversial topics.

Of course, favorable perceptions of corporate accountability and trust in the message are not necessarily easily won. Both focus group studies and survey research point to the importance of demonstrating a commitment to community welfare, as well as articulating the degree to which the industry is accountable to government regulation, to enhance perceptions of corporate accountability. Meanwhile, to engender corporate trust, the same research points to the importance of transparency with regard to both corporate identity (a particularly noteworthy concern for trade group–sponsored advocacy) as well as corporate actions regarding the issue of public concern. Businesses that wish to run successful campaigns may fare best by establishing, through their actions, that they merit the public’s trust and are accountable for their actions.

Ethical Considerations

The demonstrated success of corporate advocacy notwithstanding, corporate advocacy campaigns do merit special attention with regard to ethics. While they may resemble CSR campaigns in portraying a company as responsive to the needs of society, the underlying goals of corporate advocacy represent an even stronger focus on the business’s interests than CSR warrants. CSR campaigns address prosocial initiatives in a range of areas through corporations’ voluntary consideration of stakeholder concerns; meanwhile, the essence of many, if not most, corporate advocacy campaigns is protecting the organization’s position in the marketplace and/or avoiding negative outcomes associated with negative publicity regarding the business’s products or production processes. Furthermore, many of these campaigns are initiated by risk-related products, such as coal, oil, gas, and pharmaceuticals, or products around which public concerns have coalesced, such as genetically modified crops or high-fructose corn syrup.

Given these considerations, particular attention is required in most corporate advocacy campaigns to avoid charges of “greenwashing” or “spin” and fulfill the social responsibility to stakeholders that ideally underlies any form of corporate communication. Criteria that have been identified as necessary for ethical corporate advocacy include the following: (a) transparency of the message source, (b) accuracy in describing corporate activities, and (c) responsible use of values appeals. To begin, corporate advocacy campaigns must be transparent about the source of the message, particularly when the source is an industry trade association as opposed to an individual corporation. The second criterion further requires accurate description of the business’s activities as well as industry risks, such as its environmental impact. Finally, the criterion of sensitivity requires that values appeals be balanced with accurate information about the organization’s activities. In other words, ethical corporate advocacy campaigns should balance the interests of the organization with social responsibility. Audiences’ overall response to corporate advocacy hinges on perceptions of corporate accountability and trust.


Corporate advocacy represents a form of issue advocacy sponsored by businesses and industry trade groups to address issues of public concern. Most campaigns are designed to achieve marketplace (e.g., protecting or promoting the business’s products or industry sector) and/or political (e.g., preventing or opposing public policies or government regulation that may affect the business) objectives. Corporate advocacy campaigns also usually involve a values-based persuasion strategy. Values-based corporate advocacy campaigns praise societal values, equate the business with societal goals, and/or condemn oppositional values. Overall, corporate advocacy has been found to be a successful marketing strategy for generating favorable attitudes toward the advertiser and the advocated issue. Additionally, by emphasizing some industry issues (e.g., jobs) and avoiding others (e.g., environmental impacts), corporate advocacy campaigns have the ability to build and shape the public’s agenda regarding business and industry matters.

Although corporate advocacy often involves only limited references to corporate activities, efforts to enhance public trust and accountability may generate particularly favorable public outcomes. An ethical framework for corporate advocacy similarly underscores the importance of transparency and accuracy in corporate messaging; advocacy campaigns that are transparent and accurate in describing corporate activities, as well as those that balance the interests of the business with social responsibility, may avoid the skepticism often associated with corporate communication on issues of public concern.

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Miller, B. M. (2012). Marketplace advocacy campaigns: Generating public support for business and industry. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.

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Miller, B. M., & Sinclair J. (2014, June). The ethics and boundaries of industry environmental campaigns. Paper presented at the Fourth Iowa State University Summer Symposium on Science Communication, Ames.

Sethi, S. P. (1977). Advocacy advertising and large corporations. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Sinclair, J., & Irani, T. (2005). Advocacy advertising for biotechnology: The effect of public accountability on corporate trust and attitude toward the ad. Journal of Advertising, 34(3), 59–73. doi:

Sinclair, J., & Miller, B. M. (2012). Public response before and after a crisis: Appeals to values and outcomes for environmental attitudes. In L. Ahern & D. Bortree (Eds.), Talking green: Exploring contemporary issues in environmental communications (pp. 107–130). New York: Peter Lang.

See Also

Accountability; Advertising; Audiences; Commercial and Political Speech; Corporate Communication; Corporate Social Responsibility, Communication of; Key Messages; Marketing; Public Relations

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