When should your organization speak up on a social issue?
It’s a question that many communicators are asking themselves in 2021 as a divided country tries to find common ground and chart a path back from the darkest days of COVID-19. The short answer: You should be prepared to address the issues your stakeholders care about.
However, that’s a simplistic view that fails to account for the complicated power brands hold in our society in 2021.
“What makes it so complicated now is that brands can set culture,” explained Bob Osmond, president for Racepoint Global on a recent call for Ragan’s Crisis Leadership Network. When something like the transgender bathroom bill in North Carolina in 2016 stirred up activists against the measure that forced trans kids in school to use the bathroom of their gender assigned at birth, brands moved to condemn the state’s action.
Sports and entertainment companies pushed back on the law, not because of their employees’ beliefs or identities, but because they saw a values-based play, Osmond said. And with that brand power comes great responsibility.
Change comes slowly
Osmond offered a simple truth to explain why so many brands are struggling in this new era of corporate activism: “The status quo is hard to change.”
He quoted Melis Senova, an author and expert on design thinking and leadership about why systems are so slow to adapt to change. “People often accept that change is happening, but they don’t know how to be or do anything differently.” And with all the change that has come to the marketplace, companies can be paralyzed.
Yet, consumers—especially Gen Z—expect companies to take a stand. Ninety percent of communicators said they expect increased commitment to social change in USC Annenberg’s “Politics, Polarization & Purpose Report,” and 55% expect an increase in purpose-driven campaigns.
Managing the divide between employee and consumer
On the call, one member asked Osmond how to handle differences in values between consumers and employees. For example, if a business has a conservative user base but a more liberal employee body, how should that be managed?
For Osmond, it comes back to the need to perform an outside-in evaluation before making a statement about a social issue.
“You have to factor in the communities that you serve,” he said. “You have to make those decisions about how much you are going to say publicly.” He noted that making an authentic stand can also potentially build affinity with a new set of consumers.
Consumers are making decisions based on both corporate and CEO values, Osmond reminded the audience. If looking at two equal products, people will go with the brand that is more aligned with their values.
Knowing when to speak
As far as a rubric for when an organization or CEO should address a social issue, Osmond admitted that communicators have their work cut out for them in a rapidly shifting landscape.
“Everyone is figuring this out at the same time,” he said. “I do think the core value framework needs to come back to the center of: ‘Who are we as a brand? What do our employees expect of us? What do we stand for?’”
He says that employee sentiment is particularly important as employee activism is driving much of the change in corporate behavior on social justice issues.
Once you have defined your core values and brand identity, only then can you make a decision based on the risk/reward potential. If you don’t know who you are as a company, you can’t know what it will cost you to speak out or stay silent.
One important question to ask: Do we have anything to say? “You don’t have to have a perspective on everything,” Osmond said. “You might not even have permission to say something on a specific issue.”
When pressed to define a litmus test that brands can apply to determine if they should speak out on a given issue, Osmond redirected the question.
“Integrity is defined as what you are doing when no one is watching,” he said. So rather than think about what you should say based on the expected reaction, instead consider your core values and from there, find your natural voice.
As a brand, I would first and foremost focus on the core:
- How do our people feel about what we are doing?
- Are we behaving with integrity as a brand?
From there, Osmond builds out in concentric circles form the core to find stakeholders who might be affected or have an opinion about your actions.
Reject the label of ‘politics’
While many organizations, such as Basecamp and Medium, have found themselves in hot water following efforts to suppress political discourse in the workplace, Osmond argued that the political label doesn’t apply to some social issue topics.
“Some of these things aren’t political,” he said. For example, Osmond argues that access to the voting booth for all Americans is not a “political issue” but rather a fundamental right.
Another helpful way to think about these conversations is to consider the “constituencies that need to see you do something”—employees, shareholders or customers. “That’s a helpful filter for deciding on whether your voice is necessary to add to the conversation,” Osmond said.
Part of trying to have an impact on a social issue is knowing that whatever you do, it won’t be perfect, Osmond added. He used a quote from the late tennis star Arthur Ashe to describe the journey for organizations engaged in brand activism: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
It’s work that can be broken into three phases:
1. Assess your position. Osmond recommended asking: What is your current position in the market? What are competitors doing? What are audiences expecting? Where do we stand on these issues, from DE&I to equity for working mothers, how you treat frontline workers, etc.?
2. Check your purpose. “What do you stand for beyond just making money?” Osmond asked. “Everybody wants to make money, but we know you will gain favor with certain audiences if you stand for something bigger.”
3. Be accountable. You can make statements about where you want to go, but you need to be prepared to make a commitment and hold yourself accountable. That includes accepting that you will get it wrong and own up to those mistakes along the way.
Learn more about membership in the Crisis Leadership Network here.