Look at social activism through a business lens


Recently, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School featured UNC Hussman graduate student Stephanie Mahin ’17 (Ph.D.) in an article about her work as a faculty member at UNC Kenan-Flagler and her research that relates to the way focuses on how organizations use social media to engage with a range of stakeholders. The article also mentions her work with Hussman Associate Professor Victoria Smith Ekstrand examining how #BlackLivesMatter trademark applications are handled.

Read the full story at UNC Kenan-Flagler’s website or below.

By Jordan Bartel

One of the most compelling stories of Professor Stephanie Mahin’s career unfolds day by day, tweet by tweet.

Since joining the faculty at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in 2018, the former journalist and public relations professional has focused on how companies are using social media to engage with a range of stakeholders – for better or worse.

Following the assassination of George Floyd in May 2020, Mahin’s courses and research exhibit an additional layer of evolving complexity that reflects the shift in social advocacy from corporate to activism. Employees increasingly expect the companies they work for to make their stance clear on heated issues such as systemic racism, homophobia and gender inequality. Many consumers now have the same claims.

Talking isn’t enough. Stakeholders, employees, and consumers, particularly those of Generation Z, like many of Mahin’s students, expect companies to take the path from pledging millions of dollars to various social justice efforts to launching initiatives that aim at more diverse and target more representative jobs.

“I was amazed at how much society has changed its focus and mindset to essentially asking companies to take a stand on social and political issues,” says Mahin. “From a scientific point of view, it has been fascinating to see how companies are trying to navigate this space. For some of them, the focus is not new. But for many, the focus is brand new. They are entering territory that they and some of their stakeholders have never been interested in getting involved in.”

Now, a social media post could mean Mahin throwing off her schedule for the day.

When Disney opposed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, it became a discussion in Mahin’s Corporate Social Advocacy and Activism class. How will such a public statement affect Disney employees on a day-to-day basis? What language was used and why? How will investors react?

When McDonald’s tweeted “you were one of us” days after Floyd’s murder and listed the names of black men and women killed by police, what does that mean for the company, its employees, its investors and its consumers?

They are not easy discussions, but they are always persuasive.

“I always tell my students on day one that this isn’t a typical business course, and if that’s what you want, maybe you should reconsider,” says Mahin. “I want to ask difficult questions to make them think. I’m not ready to just give you the answer. And often there is not just one answer.”

chart your own course

Mahin’s career was never predictable.

Stephanie Mahin Growing up in the small town of Rantoul, Illinois, she wasn’t afraid to take her chances. When she wanted to do “the news,” she convinced a local public radio station to hire her, even though they had never covered news and she was still in high school.

Always a creative thinker and a natural storyteller, Mahin decided he wanted to be a journalist in high school and, despite tough obstacles along the way, went full steam ahead. After graduating from college, she took a radio job in Kokomo, Indiana. She was terrible, she says, expecting to be fired at any moment. Undaunted, she instead landed a production job at CNN in Atlanta.

“I don’t know what it was about me, but I was just always so fearless about anything I wanted to do,” says Mahin. “I had no problem finding ways to make it happen.”

TV news was a better fit, but after seven years as a news reporter, including stations in Winston-Salem and Raleigh, Mahin wanted something new. So she did it.

She joined UNC Health as Internal Communications Manager and served as National Media Relations Manager for 11 years. She led communications efforts on SARS, the Ebola virus and the first global flu pandemic in four decades.

She loved the work and discovered that she also loved teaching while guest-lecturing on crisis communications for Carolina journalism students.

“I got excited every time I was asked to speak,” says Mahin. “The students were always so energetic. I felt like I got fresh ideas from them too. I thought, ‘You know what? I think I kind of like that.’”

Fearlessness served her well again. Mahin left her beloved job to pursue a PhD at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where she was a Roy H. Park Fellow. A year into her first teaching stint as an assistant professor of communications at Indianapolis University, she did something she very seldom did — looking back.

“When I arrived in Indianapolis, I missed North Carolina like nobody else. I had no idea I would miss this place so much,” she says. So I started looking for work back here. I love UNC and I realized I didn’t want to leave it.”

“I always tell my students on day one that this isn’t a typical business course, and if that’s what you want, maybe you should reconsider,” says Mahin. “I want to ask difficult questions to make them think. I’m not ready to just give you the answer. And often there is not just one answer.”

The listener

Mahin had viewed research as something done by others. She was used to the immediacy of getting a story done quickly and getting it done first.

But Mahin’s research gives her something she wasn’t quite expecting and that goes well with her inquisitive nature – the ability to delve deep into something she’s intrigued by at any given moment.

Her research sheds light on a new era of corporate social responsibility and the power of social media. With co-author Olga Hawn, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler, Mahin examined the initial reaction of investors to some of the 100 Fortune 500 companies that pledged actions and made promises after Floyd’s death.

With Victoria Smith Ekstrand, associate professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Mahin examined how #BlackLivesMatter trademark filings are treated versus those of derivative Lives Matter requests. Her article, soon to appear in the Journal of Women’s History, is about the work of black women in the 19th century to win the right to vote.

“As a black woman, I’ve always thought about justice issues and how systems could be improved,” says Mahin. “We are a business school that has always known that students need to be good at communicating. Courses like Corporate Social Advocacy and Activism show that we are interested in our students also wanting to be part of a society where companies can be good social actors.”

As carefully as Mahin watches her social feeds, she cannot predict what will happen next for corporate social activism. It could fade and be dismissed as a trend or secure its place in everyday business life. Anyway, Mahin is listening.

“The rise of advocacy and activism acknowledgment and acknowledgment organizations has changed the landscape,” Mahin says. “In the past, activists or activist groups were a thorn in the side of companies. And making the decision now to take a stand – or not – is something that many companies just can’t ignore.”

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