Corporate Activism Is the New Normal. AI Can Help With That.

Companies are taking more of an active role in civic engagement, and automated writing assistant Writer is working to help “raise the bar” on their content.

Written by Ellen Glover
Published on Apr. 06, 2022
Corporate Activism Is the New Normal. AI Can Help With That.

These days, content is king. Whether it’s a marketplace for freelance work, a sales engagement startup, or even a D2C razor company — it seems like everybody’s got a newsletter, a blog and a carefully crafted social media presence. 

Nobody knows this reality better, perhaps, than May Habib, the co-founder and CEO of automated writing assistant Writer. The startup was launched in 2020, and has since garnered the attention of top investors like Insight Partners, which led its $21 million Series A round in November. In less than three months, Habib says the startup’s revenue has doubled — something she says can be attributed to companies finally waking up to the “business value of content.”

“These are companies that are differentiating their brands with the power of content, and the consistency of the brand appearing across everything they put in front of customers,” she told Built In in an interview. “What Writer’s growth says is ‘Holy shit, content is this never-ending, bottomless pit of need.’ … The real power that Writer customers are seeing is the power of really turning the entire organization into a content organization.”

But this isn’t just mindless content. Companies use Writer’s AI-enabled technology to write whatever they need — whether that’s an internal Slack message, a job performance review, or a public-facing statement in response to a major news event. All the while, it helps users “write with empathy,” as Habib puts it. “AI writing will really just raise the bar for the depth and quality of content that organizations produce.”

“It’s really about coaching employees towards an employer brand that communicates with a certain sensitivity.”

Once a company has set Writer up, every employee is given a Chrome extension or some other kind of end-user writing tool. Writer will then make real-time suggestions according to its built-in algorithm and the company customizations as an employee is writing. For instance, Intuit has plugged Writer’s inclusive language API into a Slackbot that helps employees better communicate internally. This includes automatically capitalizing the “b” in “Black” when referring to people, or having a pop-up when a less inclusive phrase like “hey guys” is used. 

“The field in general is called ‘inclusive language,’ and it’s really about coaching employees towards an employer brand that communicates with a certain sensitivity,” Habib continued. “It’s a real emphasis on people-first language versus identity-first, or ability-first.” 

 

With Corporate Activism on the Rise, Companies Are Turning to AI-Assisted Content
Image: Built In

‘There’s No More Room to be Neutral’

An emphasis on empathy and political correctness in both corporate communication and public relations is arguably more important than ever, as companies continue to take more of an active role in civic engagement. 

This has played out most visibly over the last couple of years. The economic and health impacts of the pandemic, plus concerns about the rights and representation of people of color, women and LGBTQ+ folks prompted a massive wave of social activism and engagement among companies in 2020, and it has carried into today. Now, we are seeing it again in the private sector’s response to issues like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order that equates gender-affirming healthcare for transgender children to child abuse. 

As Sherrell Dorsey, an entrepreneur and writer who began tracking companies’ racial justice support in the summer of 2020, sees it, not engaging with politics just isn’t an option for companies anymore. When the world is confronting war, pandemic, human rights violations and so much more, “there’s no more room to be neutral.”

“Companies, overall, are not allowed to just stay silent,” she told Built In. “As consumers and purchasers of companies and brands, we are so much more in tune with how they are showing up and appearing. We’re questioning the benefits of workplace and space and society. We are ever-more conscious and aware of where companies stand and who they actually are at the end of the day.”

“We are ever-more conscious and aware of where companies stand and who they actually are at the end of the day.”

This blurring of the lines between politics and the private sector was inevitable, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. After all, Walmart and Amazon are two of the largest employers in the country — coming in second and third, respectively, behind none other than the United States government, which employs a total of about 9 million people. And large tech companies have a huge amount of power over local, state and federal governments, as seen over the years by local governments’ part in both Tesla’s much-anticipated move to Austin and Amazon’s hunt for a second headquarters back in 2017, as well as the ongoing debate over Facebook’s culpability or influence on everything from the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to the spreading of false information during the 2016 presidential election. 

In short: What these companies stand for, and how they portray themselves to the rest of the country and world, matters. As for-profit companies, they are largely beholden to consumers — just as publicly elected officials are beholden to their constituents. So of course they’re feeling the need to align themselves with the causes that are important to their consumers. And Habib argues that the language they use to reflect that should be a top priority.

“Our words matter. Increasingly, business leaders have an opportunity to step up and lead,” she told Built In via email. “As we continue to navigate through one of the most divisive times in our country’s history amidst a pandemic, political turmoil, etc., what you stand for as a company matters more than ever.

A large part of this push is due to the employees of these companies in addition to the customers — specifically, Gen Z employees, according to Habib. She says she is “regularly asked” by Gen Z job candidates about what Writer’s stance is on movements like Black Lives Matter or anti-Asian hate. 

“The speed and the comfort with which companies are able to take what, even five years ago, would have been this very politically fraught stance, really has to do with Gen Z entering the workspace and just demanding a greater level of social and civic engagement from the people that employ them,” she said, adding that millennials and Gen Z make up majority of the U.S. workforce.

 

The Lasting Influence of Gen Z

Indeed, Gen Z is almost synonymous with the concept of “woke”-ness and a heightened concern over social justice and political issues. It is the most racially diverse generation yet, and has come of age amid some pretty seismic societal shifts — the rise of social media, the ongoing fight for racial and gender equality, and the pandemic, just to name a few.

Marcie Merriman, a cultural insights and customer strategy leader at Ernst & Young, commented on the phenomenon in a recent study published by the company that analyzes Gen Z’s impact on the private sector. According to Merriman, the events of 2020 — from Covid-19 to the surge of social justice movements — “reflect a loss of innocence for the generation and something that will shape their futures.”

“Youth have historically been the drivers of cultural change, whether it’s fashion, music, the adoption of new technology or business,” Merriman said. “Social change is often determined through how they spend their money, where they decide to work and the opinions they voice. Businesses seeking to understand which changes are fleeting trends and which will become cultural norms need to look no further than Gen Z.”

“Businesses seeking to understand which changes are fleeting trends and which will become cultural norms need to look no further than Gen Z.

Gen Z (folks roughly between the ages of 10 and 25) already has a massive amount of cultural and economic influence, and will inevitably have much more of it in the near future as more of them become old enough to work and vote. A Bank of America study published in 2020 predicted that Gen Z’s income will reach $33 trillion by 2030, representing more than a quarter of the world’s income and making it the fastest rising generation. Combine that buying power with its trademark political and social activism, and it’s clear that Gen Z will have quite a bit of influence over what companies do and say for the foreseeable future in an effort to attract both employees and customers.

Irene Pedruelo, director of research and insights at DoSomething, a tech-focused nonprofit that aims to mobilize young people to make social change, told Built In that younger generations are “undoubtedly” already exerting tremendous social pressure on companies. The events of 2020 accelerated this reality. 

This trend has been reiterated by the research DoSomething conducts with its 5 million Gen Z members to figure out what causes are most important to them. Pedruelo said a recent survey found that just 4 percent of young people think companies should have “no say” on issues not related to their core business. Another recent survey found that 68 percent of its community thought driving change in their own life is important — a massive jump from the 38 percent reported pre-pandemic.

“We are at an interesting point where younger generations are newly attuned to their power.”

“There is an understanding among younger generations that this is a leverage that they can use to draw their point home around different issues. And companies are reacting to that,” Pedruelo said. “We are at an interesting point where younger generations are newly attuned to their power.”

She added that it’s not just just about wanting companies to speak out on these issues. Gen Z also wants them to have a genuine, long-term commitment to the cause. “Young people are getting smarter and smarter about calling those who they don’t feel are genuine out,” Pedruelo continued. “If you are dipping your toes into a cause as a corporation in particular, you have to be sure that you are walking the walk.”

 

With Corporate Activism on the Rise, Companies Are Turning to AI-Assisted Content
Image: Built In

What It Takes to ‘Walk the Walk’

The importance of accountability is precisely why entrepreneur Sherrell Dorsey decided to start tracking companies’ racial justice support in her publication The Plug — compiling all their public statements and calling out the ones that stayed silent. She has since kept her eye on how these companies have followed through on their promises to be better and spearhead change in their own communities. 

So far, it’s been a “mix.” She says some companies have been true to their word, bringing on chief diversity officers, creating employee resource groups, and just diversifying their team overall. Other companies have “faded to black,” and haven’t quite lived up to the promises of their statements in 2020 beyond just writing a check or ticking a box. But Dorsey doesn’t seem to think the companies that have “fallen by the wayside” will be able to sustain that kind of stance for much longer. This is especially the case, she believes, in the midst of the “great resignation,” when company culture is arguably more important than ever for all workers, especially workers of color.

“People are going to where they are celebrated, not tolerated,” Dorsey said.

DoSomething’s Irene Pedruelo says companies are beginning to catch onto this.

“We’ve seen, especially in the last year, an evolution among companies from being very quick to jump into the external publicizing of their support for causes, to understanding that, in some cases, it backlashes because you cannot stand by it. Because internally [they] haven’t been supporting it,” she explained. “We’ve seen this shift from speaking out, to taking things internally and establishing the processes to really make progress.”

And May Habib says Writer is in a position to help, claiming that “consistent, on-brand content” gives companies a “clear advantage.”

It’s critical to create company communications that align with both customers and employees. It’s no secret we live in a world where any and all communications can go viral in an instant through social media.  Messaging that best reflects who you are and what you stand for matters,” she added in her email. Again, words matter and choosing the right messaging in a clear and consistent manner can greatly affect who wants to work for and with your company.

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