Corporate social responsibility is a given for any business wishing to be recognized as committed to political or environmental causes. But it’s no longer enough for business leaders to espouse policies with respect to sustainability, diversity and gun control. Now, corporate boards and executives are expected to adopt vocal, prominent positions on an ever-expanding array of issues recognizing that customers, employees and investors expect action—not only words.
Companies have long taken positions on issues of social importance. The difference now is both in the frequency of corporate pronouncements on events, policies and legislation, as well as the expectation that companies be directly engaged on social issues even when those issues aren’t directly linked to the company’s business or capacity to effect meaningful change. There’s pressure to both say more and do more.
At least part of the reason for this is that corporations remain among the most trusted segments of our economy, far more so than the media or government, according to Edelman’s Trust Index. Further, no single group of stakeholders want corporate leadership to engage. Almost all do, from employees to consumers to those already engaged in political discourse. Corporate leadership is compelled, to a far greater extent, to take a position and be visible in doing so.
For communicators, the challenge becomes counseling corporate leadership on when to engage, how to engage and the manner in which to communicate about that engagement. Is a statement posted to the company’s website appropriate, or is a CEO’s post to a LinkedIn profile the better way to express a perspective? The answer may vary by company and by each unique context.
Consumer brands generally want as many customers as possible, without regard for the political leanings of those who buy their products. Thus, taking a stridently and highly-visible liberal or conservative position may risk alienating a segment of their marketplace that can be vitally important to revenue and profitability goals. Conversely, there’s a desire and obligation to speak out on issues such as racial injustice—as was especially the case in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd—that reflect a widely-shared sense of commitment to equality.
Culture and Principles are Key
There’s a growing willingness among corporations to weigh in and express their values, similar in some ways to the actions of engaged individual citizens. While it can be necessary and important to express a position on matters of concern, the company’s culture and principles provide the boundaries for when and when not to do so.
The principles a company upholds and the manner in which it conducts its business provide context and the rationale as to why a company is taking a position, why it matters to the business and what actions the company also will take to affirm its beliefs. If the company intends no action with respect to a particular issue, it’s not likely to be credible espousing a perspective on that issue.
Those of us who counsel senior leadership on issue communication must frame our advice with reference to corporate culture and principles. If we can’t draw a bright-line connection, we risk exhausting the credibility capital that gives the organization’s statements weight and value.
CEOs speak for the corporation, but not necessarily for every investor, employee or customer. When the corporation clearly defines its culture and values, it gives stakeholders an opportunity to assess if their personal perspectives align with those of the organization. They may not in all cases, so CEOs must be sensitive to the potential for differences of opinion.
To be sure, strong unequivocal statements are needed when our shared sense of humanity is imperiled. Companies gain nothing from silence on such matters. Yet there are times when the CEO’s personal views may not represent all of the company’s stakeholders. At the very least, this possibility needs to be considered when statements are prepared. This sensitivity also may guide decisions about where and how to deliver statements of importance. If the views are primarily those of senior leadership, their personal LinkedIn or Facebook pages may be more appropriate than the landing page of the corporate website.
Being CEO doesn’t automatically entitle one to the full followership of all constituents. This is especially the case within multi-national corporations where differences in culture, language and social mores influence how a statement is received. As communicators, we must help senior leadership maintain this awareness and sensitivity so they can speak thoughtfully and deliver their message in the optimal forum.
Your Own Public Square
When the decision is made to express a perspective on a social issue, the accompanying decision is where and how to deliver it. There’s no question that the company’s website is its most valuable “owned” channel. There are times when only the front page will do, such as at the time of the George Floyd murder.
An additional option for corporations to consider is a platform specifically created for the purpose of delivering messages of social importance. Think of it as your company’s own public square, where perspectives and opinions can be shared, updated and easily accessed by those outside the organization. A specifically created channel also affords executives the ability to readily share links to new material, post commentary on their own platforms, and direct internal and external audiences to important information. Most important, it preserves the value and significance of the corporate landing page for matters that warrant such prominent presentation.
Openness to Dialogue
Issues of social importance almost always are controversial. There’s rarely a single perspective with which all can agree. When a company or CEO expresses a perspective, it will, almost certainly, precipitate a reaction.
When a statement is simply posted to the corporate web site, there may be no mechanism for differing viewpoints to be expressed. This can leave others, especially employees, feeling disenfranchised. Creating an opportunity for stakeholders to weigh in, share a perspective, offer a comment or even dissociate themselves from the corporate position, is an appropriate and meaningful demonstration of openness to dialogue.
It also can be a further affirmation of a core value or principle reflected in the company’s statement of culture.
In the emerging age of corporate activism, the rules will continue to evolve. For now, we at least can accept that silence isn’t golden, that expression isn’t necessarily engagement, but most important, actions speak louder than words.
This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s, May 2021