Social injustice, gender issues, immigration, #MeToo, gun control, and trade wars. These are just a few of the many societal issues about which large and small businesses alike are finding themselves increasingly pressured to stand up and speak out.
We entrepreneurs may think our comparatively small size protects us from the slings and arrows of the hourly news cycle or employees picketing outside company headquarters. But it doesn’t. A Glassdoor survey of 1,000 employees from organizations of all sizes found that 62 percent expect their employers to take a stand on important societal and political issues of the day.
Do I have your attention? I should, since remaining silent or saying the wrong thing could imperil everything from employee recruiting and retention to business continuity and even your exit strategy.
My firm, Peppercomm, has interviewed more than 150 chief communications officers in the past 18 months, and assembled the nine best tips for preparing, managing, and monitoring a whole host of issues that should (or soon will) be keeping you up at night.
1. Determine your team
Surround yourself with the very best thinkers in your firm. Include the CFO, CHRO, CLO, and CCO, as well as representatives from your various ESGs. It’s essential the CEO herself be part of the group. Set an initial meeting and then re-group every single succeeding month.
2. Determine your organizational purpose
Many organizations have mission statements, but those are short-term, tactical, and only address “what” a company provides (e.g. “Our goal is to provide the highest quality widget in the world”). A purpose explains why a company exists. For example, Lowe’s included representatives from every region and business unit of their organization before deciding theirs: “To help people love the homes in which they live.” A purpose is critical since it will be your North Star in determining if you will or won’t speak out on societal issues (as well as what you will say).
3. Identify every potential issue or crisis
First examine industry issues critical to your organization’s ongoing success. Then, based on your purpose, extend the list to include your values. Do you believe in inclusion & diversity, protecting the environment, stricter immigration policies, etc.? One major airline from Peppercomm’s survey, for example, identified 72 different societal and industry issues it felt would necessitate taking a stance during a crisis.
Will your sponsorship of a right-wing radio pundit’s cable show alienate liberal stakeholder audiences? Would you take a position like Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastion, whose company rescinded fare discounts to NRA members following a mass school shooting? Bastion even doubled down when threatened by Georgia lawmakers to drop a jet-fuel tax break by saying, “Our values are not for sale.” Many organizations have already been caught unaware of the adverse impact a single tweet, outdoor advertisement, or stadium sponsorship might cause.
5. Know your audiences
Nike’s decision to hire former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to be the face of the campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” tagline seemed incredibly risky. But Nike knew its audiences. After experiencing a social media frenzy and an initial 3 percent drop in the stock price, the company rebounded and saw its market value increase by $8 billion.
6. Stress test your stand
Assemble the team to simulate a potential crisis such as a just-announced rollback of environmental protection laws, and gauge the reaction to your stance. In many instances, your team will overlook one key stakeholder audience or disagree which is the most important to communicate to first. We recently simulated a societal crisis for a group of 50 members of boards of directors. Two-thirds felt they should communicate first with employees. The other 33 percent chose shareholders.
7. Leverage the appropriate communications channel
One large retailer that had been attacked by President Trump chose not to respond with a tweet of its own. Instead it went to a trusted beat reporter at an industry trade publication who filed an objective, fact-filled story explaining why the company had made the decision it had. POTUS moved on and the crisis dissipated overnight. Sometimes the best response may be a tweet, a town hall meeting with employees, a full-page advertisement in a national print publication, or all three. You’ll never know if you don’t prepare.
I don’t know the organization’s purpose, but I can assure you Edward W. Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, overlooked his purpose and customers’ feelings when announcing the retail giant would no longer sell automatic weapons. The stance shocked and dismayed a wide swath of stakeholders. Sales and the stock price have dropped precipitously.
9. Semper paratus
Heed the motto of the U.S. Coast Guard and remain “Always Ready.” The only way to do so is to continually monitor and adjust (as needed) to every one of the above suggestions.
There are no guard rails in this new societal crisis du jour world of ours. The best protection is protection itself. Trust me, you do not want to read a front page article in The Wall Street Journal that includes an email from every employee demanding you immediately terminate your ICE contracts. By waiting until then, you’ve jeopardized the very survival of your organization.