Top Corporate Issues in 2018
HLG Analytics is a unit of High Lantern Group that analyzes and forecasts issue trends and develops actionable strategies to manage them. As we begin the new year, we thought we’d share some high-level trends we uncovered in 2018. We hope you find this data useful.
A note on methodology: the following data is based on 12 months of Twitter output from a universe of 2,500 elite stakeholders comprised of top activists, policymakers, news media, influencers and trade groups. This output – millions of discrete communications – was classified into more than 200 issues using natural language processing techniques. We further segmented the data against 80+ industry categories and 900+ prominent companies.
1. Living wage was the #1 corporate issue in 2018
Analyzing communications that mentioned a specific company, we found that living wage was the top corporate issue in 2018. Tax reform, data and privacy issues, and drug pricing rounded out the top five, while sexual harassment issues continued to dominate headlines in sixth place. Notably, conservation and environmental issues ranked much lower. You’d have to go all the way down to #16 to find the first environmental issue: use of fossil fuels. Plastic pollution was a rapid riser at #20, but many companies were quick to take action, transforming it from a point of criticism to a leadership story.
2. Labor issues have the greatest momentum
We analyzed which issues had the greatest percent increase in the second half of the year, signaling momentum heading into 2019. Union grievances, sexual harassment, and living wage issues continued to gain steam in late 2018. Living wage wasn’t among the greatest percent increasers, but that’s only because it started from such a high base; we expect it to be even more relevant in the near term, particularly under a Democrat-controlled House. China-related issues have spiked not surprisingly due to recent activity on trade and tariffs.
3. Tech industry in the crosshairs
Our data reaffirms 2018 was the year of the techlash, with greatest scrutiny and criticism placed on the shoulders of the internet services industry – including giants like Google and Facebook. Internet retail – particularly Amazon – placed second due to exposure to a range of issues including taxation, labor automation and even homelessness in Seattle. These industries face a number of red-hot issues from data security and privacy, to pricing practices, to racial, gender, and LGBTQ equality and freedom of speech. In the service sector, restaurants are on the front lines of many labor and equality issues.
Notably absent from our top ten is the oil and gas industry, which in years past has experienced intense stakeholder pressure on environmental issues. Perhaps this is another sign of shifting corporate positioning as more solution-oriented on sustainability issues.
4. Tech giants dominate company callouts
Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet and Apple all were in the top six in our rankings of companies in the crosshairs. Some of this can be attributed to brand relevance. Activists tend to associate their issues with high profile brands as a means of getting traction. It’s also a reflection of the growing heat around privacy, data and other concerns around emerging technologies – not to mention the ubiquity and power of their platforms.
5. Top activist groups
Labor, environmental and animal rights activists dominate online when explicitly targeting corporate actors to change their policies. Whether launching petitions, threatening or sharing news on strikes, or calling out advertising or political donations, these groups have done the most on social media to apply pressure to major brands.
6. Three themes worth tracking in 2019
There are scores of issues that will be broadly relevant to the c-suite and corporate board rooms in the coming months. We believe the following three general themes will cut across individual issues – and are especially worthy of strategic focus:
Wealth inequality & labor insecurity. Reputation strategists would be wise to view every company action through the lens of its perceived effect on wealth inequality, which is one of the fundamental challenges of our time. Living wage is the clearest manifestation, but there are others: CEO & executive pay, leave policies, affordable housing and homelessness. Labor automation is a particular issue we’re watching closely. To the extent that it results in significant reductions of frontline service sector workers, automation of jobs could provoke a backlash similar to the heavily-politicized outsourcing debate in the 2000s.
Privacy and data security. This set of issues continues to metastasize rapidly and will have widespread ramifications for many industries – even those outside the technology realm. The parameters of what consumers and society find acceptable continue to evolve. Technology, innovation and new uses of data – including biometric, voice and facial recognition and methods of tracking – will confound attempts to establish clear guidelines on behavior. We’re keeping our eye on dynamic pricing, which is all about the use of consumer information to set prices, as a potential new flashpoint.
Transparency. Many of the issues we track – including nutrition, political donations, product content, pricing and sourcing – share a common thread of transparency expectations. In our analysis of these issues, the most intense backlash derives from a sense that key information is being withheld. Companies and industries must navigate competing imperatives of the competitive pressure to reveal less and the consumer demand to know more.