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  • Sarah Black

When to speak out on social issues

It seems like barely a day goes by without another brand or business being celebrated or canceled because of the stand they’ve taken or not taken on a social issue.

Research from Edelman shows that trust in businesses exceeds that in government and the media. It also shows that we expect more from businesses when it comes to leading the way in addressing contemporary social issues. We believe our CEOs should be speaking out and taking the lead, rather than waiting for governments to force them to act.

There’s been a shift from expecting businesses to act responsibly in terms of corporate social responsibility and ESG reporting to expecting them to embrace brand activism. Sarkar & Kotler define ‘brand activism’ as “business efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic and/or environmental reform or stasis with the desire to promote or impede improvements in society.”

If a business gets it right, there are rewards in terms of brand reputation, talent retention, and customer loyalty. Get it ‘wrong’ and it can be a long hard road back to public favor. And increasingly getting it wrong may mean saying nothing – there can be as great a risk in silence as there is in a misjudged or ill-informed statement or campaign.

In addition, there is pressure on businesses to show that they are living their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

So how can a business tell when to speak out?

I worked in partnership with Dawn Bryan, Senior Vice-President of The Kaleidoscope Group's Global Practice to develop their Three Cs framework for answering this question. As a global DEI consultant, Dawn often gets asked about when it is appropriate for a business to comment on issues around social and organizational equity and inclusion.

I recommend that every organization should have a framework in place to help it make effective decisions when presented with an urgent social issue. Here’s my Three Cs framework as a starting place for developing your own.

Culture: this means taking a long hard look at whether where the issue meets a business’ purpose and values, and whether ‘the insides match the outsides.’ Can an organization legitimately comment on a topic such as pay equity if male employees are paid more than female employees in comparable roles? Can you speak out on trans rights if you haven’t talked to your LGBTQ+ employees about whether they feel safe and supported within your organization?

Another way to look at this is whether there is action to support any speaking out. It is one thing to make a statement but increasingly stakeholders want to see the substance behind those statements. And this includes having hard conversations internally. Social change often needs to begin at home, engaging people at every level of the business in the conversation. It also may mean diversifying suppliers and creating new opportunities for those who are historically underrepresented. It may mean some major internal change management for your culture.

And if the CEO has decided to take a stand, have they communicated this position internally so that other members of leadership and employees across the organization are briefed and understand what it might mean to them?

Ultimately, you need to decide if speaking out reflects and aligns with your values and who you are as an organization.

Cause: in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, some businesses didn’t quite strike the right note. They had not done their own work on understanding racism.

One of the key considerations before speaking out is to fully understand the issue. There are times when tragic events demand an almost immediate response but broadly, taking the time to listen to those most deeply affected, reflect, and do some work will lead to more effective and meaningful contributions.

This is also because speaking out isn’t just about making a speech or a statement. It is increasingly about a business taking a position that then informs all its future actions. There needs to be some serious ‘walking’ to support the ‘talking’. CEOs, business leaders, and even DEI experts need to take the time to understand how they can use their position, power, and voices most effectively and appropriately.

There is also value in developing partnerships – as the saying goes, ‘nothing for us, without us’. Social activism shouldn’t be something a business does to the historically excluded or underrepresented. It should be something it does WITH them, and which directly benefits them, not just the organization's brand reputation.

And in our ‘post-truth’ society, it is still important to build reputation and relationships and to check the facts, context, and background on issues before responding. The key is to balance this with responding in a timely manner.

Community: Part of understanding any issue is to understand how it impacts your wider community. Now, this does not mean that you don’t speak out because it might upset them. It does mean that businesses need to listen to and think about how to engage their community in whatever issue they are addressing.

You can’t do this effectively if you are not clear about who is part of your community so mapping your stakeholders, understanding their perspectives, and working in partnership with them is key to knowing when to speak out.

If you are serious about driving social change, then speaking out needs to be accompanied by action that engages and supports your wider community.

Finally, the state of the world means that most organizations and brands could issue a statement every day. A word of caution about this: your comments will begin to lose meaning and impact if there isn’t strategy and substance behind them. We need more than daily ‘thoughts and prayers,’ we need organizations to take appropriate action.

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