Should Your CEO Speak On Social Issues?

The nature of CEO communication on social topics over the last two years has significantly changed. The event of George Floyds death and emerging movement of Black Lives Matter was a major catalyst for change following on the heels of the business roundtables 2018 shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism.

The embrace of the definition of stakeholders and the ESG movement with special focus on diversity equity and inclusion was particularly catalyzed by George Floyd.

We see the recent Ukraine war triggering another public round of companies taking positions on whether they will do business with Russia.

All of these events have brought up the question of just how much should corporations join in on social-political discourse?

On the other side of the argument in favor of companies opining publicly on social issues we see Coinbase COIN -11.3% CEO Brian Armstrong telling his employees that the companies intranet is not the vehicle for political debate, that they should please do that elsewhere i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc. and focus their energy while working on the corporate goals, of course, in alignment with the companies values and principals.

Boards need to ask themselves, when it comes to taking stand on social/political issues, where is the line for their CEO?

For example, the recent press on Disney who first faced backlash for not taking a public stance on Florida legislation which would ban schools from teaching students in third grade and below about sexual orientation and then faced more criticism for their response to the backlash and the proposed legislation. Perhaps the situation could have been handled with more diplomacy taking into account the various positionings of the multitude of their stakeholders; when making a public statement you cannot just reply to one constituency i.e. only the employees or only the customer base.

Netflix NFLX -1.8% has recently made headlines after sending a memo to staffers highlighting how Netflix values the “artistic expression” of its content creators over each employee’s personal beliefs / lifestyle. Netflix states that they produce a variety of stories even if some of the content created may be in opposition to their own personal values. “Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful,” the memo stated. “If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”

Boards along with management may want to go through the exercise of thinking through the best course of action when a social issue comes up. Perhaps run through this list of questions as a starting point:

1. Do we need to say anything? Often when you say something on a controversial topic you will cause offense or polarization with one set of constituencies. Rarely do you get criticized for being quiet (there are exceptions).

2. Who are you speaking to? Your employees’, customers, investors? And why do they need to hear from you on this? If you are an oil and gas company your consumers employees and investors do want to hear your position on climate change, but they may not need to hear your position on other topics.

3. Another question to ask yourself is: “who are your current and future target customers and employees?” If you are a consumer brand especially your current and future customer cohort may be the born crypto born digital millennial gen z cohort where your views on social issues are expected and the norm and they may not engage with your brand if you are not taking a position.

There are also anomalies that you may want to consider when thinking this topic through since there are always tradeoffs when it comes to publicly commenting on any social / political topic.

We often see many glitzy Silicon Valley tech companies commenting frequently on these topics but keep in mind that Silicon Valley is a unique bubble in America and may not be the example your company should be following.

There really is no clear absolute right answer, but having the discussion and clarifying the parameters is important.

Additionally, there are cycles in communication in PR to be sensitive to.

One of the most difficult things in this highly engaging discussion is to separate your own personal politics, preferences, and passions, from what should be a corporate policy.

One of the best foundational starting points that I have seen is to go back to your company’s first principal of what are your values. Re-affirm and reclarify what is your company’s purpose and mission.

Based on these foundational building blocks then look at layering on what is the right framework for your CEO to speak on highly sensitive social issues.

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