When to Speak Up

Issues Management Insights | By Bryan Harris and Chowning Aguilera

The past two-plus years have been a daunting landscape of major moments that no amount of scenario planning could fully prepare an organization to traverse with confidence and ease. Every day, it seems that something monumental happens that has tangible and longstanding impacts on our society and the world. Personally, we all have strong feelings about how and when we should lend our voice in support of those affected by political decisions, who’ve suffered at the hands of oppressors, or been the victim of injustice, but what is the expected response of the places we work and the brands we consume?

Sadly, according to many in the public sphere and on social media, it is not enough to care anymore or even to act - there are subsets of the society that think leaders and companies must speak whenever an issue arises. There will be people inside and outside of the organization who wait for the statement, the mass email or the social post outlining how the organization feels about what has just happened. If the organization’s statement is in line with someone’s personal views, then they will praise leaders as visionary. If it is in opposition to what those people want to hear, then they will eviscerate the brand and be astonished that the company ever dared to share its opinion. This win or lose type of situation has unfortunately become the norm and the desire for those on the far ends of the political spectrum to compel leaders and brands to speak or stay silent has created a real dilemma for those who advise them.

The hard truth? When we lead our organizations or clients through significant moments that are larger than their business, our personal feelings and wants can’t be the deciding factor. Instead, these moments require leaders to lean into their business’ vision, values and purpose, as well as the relationship they have fostered with their customers.

Balancing Internal and External Interests

While it may sound like PR 101, we know that companies often struggle to balance the lens of their internal audiences, who joined the mission and show up to work every day, with their customers, whose support keeps them in business. These sometimes competing interests can pull from all sides when trying to determine the best plan of action when encountering a national or international moment that inflames passions. This dance, when not handled properly, can lead to wild swings in a brand’s response to these important issues, as we recently saw with Disney’s response to the controversial Florida education law. After initially remaining quiet on the issue, their employees encouraged the brand to speak out, which led to public and political backlash from those on the other side of the spectrum.

For many, the gut reaction is to just say something. While noble, it is not possible for a brand to issue some sort of marketing communications, embark on a grand gesture or make a donation every time something happens in the world. We believe that instead, brands should look at their customers and internal stakeholders and carefully determine whether a public response is in line with the relationship they have forged over time.

Ask the Right Question

The question customers and employees often ask is “does XYZ brand care?” about a particular issue. Many will go online and ask these questions publicly and directly, hoping to elicit a response from the organization. Instead, the pertinent question should be “is it relevant?” The definition of relevant is “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.” Building off that, the questions leaders and consultants should ask before speaking out are:

  • Is this relevant to our core business?
  • Is it relevant to our customers?
  • Is it relevant to our employees (and potentially shareholders)?
  • Is it relevant to our industry?
  • Is it relevant to the community that we call home?

After determining relevance, the answer isn’t to immediately start drafting that mass email and Instagram post. Brands then must determine whether a public response is in line with their mission, purpose and overall identity. Would a response fall naturally the way they currently converse and engage with their stakeholders? Are they willing to comment on every similar incident in the future? What do our customers and employees (and for some, shareholders) expect of us? Are those two parties aligned? These collective answers will help lead us to a thoughtful conclusion. These calculations must be made quickly so that any response (or lack thereof) doesn’t come across as overly delayed or reactionary.

An important side note—brands can give their resources to support a cause without issuing a statement. Many seem to have forgotten that this is possible…

Not a Right or Wrong Answer

Let’s look at this in action. Ben and Jerry’s makes really good ice cream, but their broader purpose and brand values center on social responsibility. Their commentary and clear points of view are both expected and demanded by their customers and employees. Commenting on world events is part of the normal engagement they have with their customers. Ben and Jerry’s is a social justice, peace and love company, who happens to make pretty excellent ice cream.

A national accounting firm, carpet manufacturer or regional hardware store may not have built their relationship with the customer in the same way. Their customers expect good service, value and technical expertise, not necessarily a commentary on a social justice matter or myriad other issues that are part of a national or international dialogue. While the owner of those businesses and their employees may be actively engaged in many social causes, entering into a public commentary on these types of issues would actually change their customer relationship dynamic and likely cause harm to brand affinity.

Speaking with Intention and Action

Bottomline, don’t speak for the sake of speaking or just because others are. This is a hard decision to make in the moment, which is why we advise clients to think about these types of things beforehand. Like an athlete that hones their craft so that they operate more off muscle memory in the pressure-filled moments of a game, leadership needs to think about how they respond to national and global events before they happen. Those in the C-Suite should think in advance about how they want to engage their internal and external audiences relating to social issues and world events. If needed, make the philosophy of engagement clear in advance to those in your organization so they know what to expect.

Next, have someone on your internal team or agency partner monitor broader big issues and begin to think through your point of view and level of engagement. For many of our clients, we do issues briefs at regular intervals that take a holistic view of external issues and begin to develop a perspective with our clients.

If you choose to speak out, do it with clarity, purpose, proper emotion and action. If a brand is not willing to show action toward making the situation better, then that should give everyone pause. Speaking out means articulating your purpose, expressing an emotional response and outlining tangible actions. If these can’t be done, then you should think long and hard about saying anything at all.

If you choose not to speak, be ready to explain the intentionality behind the lack of response to your internal audiences. Give them room to express their concerns. Not everyone will agree with perceived silence on the issue, but ensure that those in leadership are prepared to speak to those concerns with empathy. For external audiences, you have to be comfortable with the fact that some may not agree with your silence, there is no getting around that. Exhausting energy to explain your silence defeats the purpose of not engaging. Instead, continue to deliver on the value proposition that has been the foundation of your relationship with the customer.