Deciding When to Speak Up on Social Issues

May 2024
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Black Lives Matter. Immigration. Abortion. The war in Gaza. 

Lately, it seems as though not a day goes by without another organization or brand being attacked for speaking out — or, in many cases, not speaking out — about some divisive social issue.

The pressure on leaders to take public stands on lightning-rod topics will only intensify as customers, employees, investors and other stakeholders increasingly look to support companies that share their values and beliefs, and vilify those whose values and actions they consider incompatible.

Consumers overwhelmingly expect companies to speak up about critical issues like human rights (82%), climate change (73%), racism (72%) and immigration (69%), according to a July 2023 survey by Weber Shandwick, KRC Research, Powell Tate and United Minds. 

Two out of three workers who responded to the survey said their employers have a responsibility to engage regardless of whether an issue is controversial. And the numbers continue to climb, with the percentage of employees who expect their organizations to address social issues up seven points from the previous December.    

Executives and boards have ample reason to be worried. In an environment where even the most benign, painstakingly crafted message on a company’s social pages can constitute fighting words and spark a reputational firestorm, deciding when to speak up and when to stand down is a complex calculation. 

Here are seven questions organizations need to ask themselves: 

Is the issue clearly aligned with our core mission, strategy and values?

Stakeholders expect authenticity from the organizations they support and want to hear from them about matters that are central to what they do and the value they bring to society.

If an issue is so closely tied to the organization’s mission and expertise that it would be remiss not to communicate it, then the duty to weigh in may very well outweigh the risk of keeping silent. 

Organizations that stray too far out of their strategic lanes do so at their peril. The Texas-based restaurant chain Pizza Inn learned this the hard way on Jan. 5, 2021, when it tweeted out, then quickly retracted, a press release laying out its CEO’s list of recommendations for enhancing election security. 

Ironically, the attack the next day on the U.S. Capitol was the only thing that saved the company from further media ridicule for attaching its brand to an issue so far removed from its expertise. 

Do we have a clear purpose for speaking out? 

It’s tempting to want customers and other stakeholders to know that the organization is thinking about them in times of societal tension. However, leaders need to be honest with themselves about what they hope to achieve by speaking out and whether they are doing so for the right reasons or merely engaging in woke-washing or virtue-signaling.

Employees will be the first to call out disconnects between what a company’s leaders are saying publicly and what they experience in the workplace. 

Have we thoroughly thought through the risks? Does our purpose for speaking out outweigh the hazards?

If the organization’s purpose for speaking out doesn’t clearly outweigh the risks, then it’s probably wise to consider a different tack, like joining a coalition of like-minded companies. 

What are others in our industry doing? 

What are they saying, where and to whom? And how is it being received? 

Will our stakeholders support our position?

If the answer is “It depends,” then it’s time to step back and assess the relative importance of the concerned stakeholders to the organization’s business. If the concerns involve a narrow customer niche, for example, then the calculation of whether to proceed will be very different than if executives close their eyes and see thousands of employees coming at them with torches and pitchforks. 

Can we stomach the potential backlash? 

It is essential to be ready with a plan and messages for dealing with the negative onslaught after it’s unleashed. Even more critical is making sure that the company has the intestinal fortitude and resources to withstand the potential financial consequences of speaking out in terms of sales, share price and the cost of disrupted operations. 

Ensuring that board members are equally committed to the plan to speak out is also vital. Board members need to be fully cognizant of the potential financial and reputational risks to the organization and to them personally. 

They must also understand that backpedaling at the first sign of customer, employee or investor revolt could have far graver consequences, including losing the trust of key supporters and further energizing opponents, than staying the course or not speaking out in the first place. 

Are we committed to more than just talk? 

Words only go so far. Calls to “speak out” are demands for action. Trying to make clear where the organization stands on an issue without simultaneously committing to meaningful action in support of its stakeholders’ interests is likely to backfire.

Take, for example, the audio streaming giant Spotify and its decision to “speak out” about George Floyd’s murder by airing eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence — the amount of time police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck, suffocating him — and to match employees’ contributions to anti-racism groups. 

Critics panned the gestures as little more than a hollow marketing stunt for a $9 billion company that makes millions of dollars in profits from Black listeners and the work of Black artists, calling Spotify’s plan a “stark contrast” with that of exponentially smaller competitor Bandcamp, which was heralded for its pledge to donate $30,000 a year to racial justice organizations and contribute 100% of Juneteenth sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Return to Current Issue Crisis Management | May2024
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