As firms are increasingly asked to make open expressions of their views on social issues, what should companies consider when and if they choose to make a statement?
One of the more challenging shifts of recent decades for businesses is the new pressure to publicly comment on social issues and events. From LGBTQ equality to Black Lives Matter, pay equity, reproductive rights, and even international war, companies no longer have the privilege of staying silent.
Indeed, taking or failing to take public stances on sensitive issues can have a dramatic impact on a firm’s ability to do business, manage its reputation, and even recruit future talent. According to LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent Trends report, candidates are more engaged when companies talk openly about culture and values, offering up 67 percent more attention to job posts and corporate content. People increasingly want to work at companies that align with their values, and are willing to take both their skills and their purchasing power elsewhere as they see fit.
In this highly charged and high stakes environment, what can firms do? The biggest lesson of recent years is that firms must have a consistent system in place. Here, three key considerations for building that consistent system will be discussed.
CONSIDERATION #1: DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHO YOU ARE?
In looking at making public statements, it is helpful to have a clear idea of the firm’s own mission, values, and goals to serve as a foundation. One element that caught many companies by surprise in the past few years was that while they had clear strategic initiatives, there often wasn’t a clear values statement to turn to for guidance in framing responses to various issues. Without that anchor point, it was hard for firms to know when and how to speak up on issues or respond to events.
For example, Starlink, Elon Musk’s low-orbit satellite Internet initiative, has always been clearly oriented toward providing connectivity services in areas where historically, data flows have been unreliable. This clarity of mission allowed the company to seem “on brand” when donating satellites to restore internet service to the island nation of Tonga after a disruptive volcanic eruption and also when the company sent re-routed satellites and sent equipment to the people of Ukraine after that nation was invaded by Russia and had their communications disrupted. Freedom of speech and open communication channels are a key part of Starlink’s identity as an organization in ways that environmentalism and many diversity issues are not (and, indeed, are spaces where Starlink is largely silent).
Firms who understand their core values – and are honest with themselves about which spaces and issues are not a part of their core values – will be able to be faster and more consistent with their social statements.
CONSIDERATION #2: DOES YOUR VOICE MAKE A MEANINGFUL IMPACT HERE?
A second consideration beyond corporate identity and values on issues is whether or not sharing a statement is going to make an impact. Depending on a company’s existing platform and brand reach, there are some issues and events where a statement is going to be a lot more meaningful and influential than others.
For example, when the Supreme Court ruled on the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate proposal for employers, the American Medical Association, a top lobbyist group for doctors, decided to make a statement about it. They did so knowing that based on who they were and their reputation in the space, their voice on this issue would mean something both in their industry and to the public. A beauty retailer making a similar statement could not have the same potential for relevance or impact, and might instead choose to remain silent on the issue.
Firms who are aware of their own spheres of influence and brand reputation can be more intentional in what they choose to comment on (and when and how). It is always tempting to chime in on hot button events and issues, but helpful save the biggest statements for the events and causes where the firm has the potential to make a true impact by being vocal.
CONSIDERATION #3: CAN YOU BACK YOUR STATEMENTS WITH MEANINGFUL ACTION?
A final consideration for companies is to consider whether or not any public statement can be backed with meaningful action. That might mean an internal change, such as publishing all executive salaries to add transparency to pay equity discussions. Or, it might be a financial commitment, such as earmarking $100,000 for investment in black-owned small businesses during Black History month.
The public is increasingly sensitive to firms scoring social points for making statements but not walking their talk. For example, when Starbucks rolled out its #RaceTogether campaign, it was poorly received since no one was looking for a statement from the company at that time and the campaign had the vague objective of “starting a conversation” between baristas and customers. On the other hand, a few years later there was a racially motivated incident in a Starbucks that resulted in the arrest of two black men over a dispute about bathroom access. Starbucks made a statement – and then backed its statement with the concrete action of closing every location for an afternoon of training dedicated to helping the company continue to be a welcoming space for people of every color and background. This was widely praised, because the company was pairing a corporate statement with meaningful and visible action on the issue.
By holding themselves accountable for follow up action, firms can be more consistent between their messaging and their practices. This can also help firms step back from statements on issues where they are not prepared to fund and execute on behavioral change.
Employees, customer, and public stakeholders are increasingly pressuring firms to comment on social issues and world events. Rather than responding ad hoc in the moment, the lessons of the past few years have taught firms that a consistent response is better. By considering the firms values, the potential impact of this message from this voice at this time, and the potential to implement meaningful action to back a statement, firms can move faster and be more consistent about when, how, and if they take a public stand.