Why Corporate Leaders Must Join the National Conversation

Today’s guest blog was authored by Lauren Parker of Peppercomm…

“Where is the corporate Kapernick?”

Ariel Investments CEO Melody Hobson posed this question to a room full of CEOs during her presentation about diversity and inclusion in the board room. It’s one example reflective of our evolving cultural landscape and the impact it’s having on corporate America.

Politics divide Americans on issues from gun control to tax reform. Women are standing up against systemic misogyny. The topic of racial inequality has moved out of the shadows and onto our national football fields. Every morning, we awake to new headlines that amplify these important national conversations.

Technology has changed the way we consume and amplify news and opinion. It’s given people the opportunity to shout their points of view and it’s led to the expectation that everyone should have an opinion to share – including corporate leaders. Social media has provided a direct line of access to those executives.

People want to know where corporate leadership stands on issues most important to them because people want to buy from, work for, and invest in companies that align with their values. In fact, 47% of millennials believe corporate CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about important social issues, and 51% are more likely to buy from a company led by an activist CEO (KRC Research). Moreover, 62% of employees of all ages expect their employer to take a stand on major issues of the day (Glassdoor).

CEOs can no longer hide in their corner office. They are expected to be the face of their corporate values. For some, this is a natural role to play. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, is one of the few corporate executives standing up to President Trump and the GOP tax plan. At the recent New York Times DealBook Conference, Schultz said, “I don’t believe that corporate America needs a 20% tax cut. The tax cut is not going to create a level playing field and more compassionate society.” Schultz took a dissenting position compared to many of his peers, but successfully connected his stance to the company’s core values, which resonates with many coffee-loving consumers.

Other executives have struggled in the spotlight. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank has taken heat after sending conflicting messages about his support for Trump and subsequent decision to leave the president’s manufacturing council. The brand took another hit when it initially came out in full support of the NFL players, then deleted the tweet and replaced it with a more generic statement. Brand spokespeople including Misty Copeland and Steph Curry publically denounced the brand claiming it “stands for nothing.”

Companies have had to respond to fake news about their business; backlash over ad buys on controversial programs; and even direct confrontation from our president. Brands can no longer attempt to be all things to all people. At the same time, they can’t afford to simply stay silent. So how can companies navigate this new set of challenges and keep its reputation intact?

  • Define Your Mission and Values: Have a clear definition of your company’s mission and values and communicate them clearly and regularly across its communication channels (not just in times of crisis). Use these as your North Star when determining when and how to speak out a challenging issue.
  • Check the Company You Keep: Recognize the importance of building a supply chain with partners who have similar corporate values. If their reputation slips, you’ll want to avoid being dragged down with them.
  • Know Who You Serve: Deeply understand your target audiences and what motivates them. Use that knowledge to connect on issues of shared importance.
  • Dust off Your Crisis Playbook: A basic crisis communications plan will no longer cut it. You need a sophisticated protocol for assessing potential reputational threats and getting the right message to the right people at the right time.
  • Speak to Your Values: You don’t have to take a formal stand any time a new issue hits the national zeitgeist. Speak authentically on the issues that directly connect to your core values and allow you to reinforce your company’s purpose.

In today’s polarized environment, it’s impossible to appease everyone but it’s even riskier to stay on the sidelines. Are you prepared to stand for something?

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Find Lauren on Twitter at @ImLaurenParker.

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