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Build the Business Case for Democracy

By Sara Adams, Chief Communications Officer, CECP

As we begin 2024, our natural inclination is to be optimistic about what’s ahead. Soon after the confetti settles, though, the dread floods in as we remember all the challenges that followed us from 2023. At its heart, it is difficult for businesses to deliver in a world that is so divisive. It is in their best interest to support democracy and civic institutions and collaborate on systemic issues, while reducing polarization and division. Thriving societies depend on these things as well.  

A constant focus on doom and gloom is not only depressing but it is also not inspiring. We rarely get anyone to change by dragging them down. Instead, in the responsible business space, companies can focus on what works and where we have made progress. With that vision ahead of us, our people stand a chance of being inspired to do more. As we start this new year, we can focus on the numerous times we were prompted to be hopeful. 

As we head towards the 2024 U.S. presidential elections—along with 60 other notable elections happening around the globe this year–how can companies spread this message of hope and trust in a way that inspires their people to act, to address adversity in their own lives, as well as the challenges that face the business?

Take stock 

What happened in past years? Did your company speak out and stand up on issues? How was that received? Have you used your corporate purpose as a guide to determine the few issues where you have standing?  

What civic engagement programs did your company offer? How were these programs received? If you offered something like paid time off to vote, how did your people respond? Did they volunteer as poll workers? Did they utilize voting guides or civic engagement playbooks?  

A recent CECP Pulse Survey showed that 27% of respondents’ companies are not providing any specific support related to the election. Among those that are offering support, 24% of companies will offer paid time off and 20% will provide flexible working hours to allow time for voting.  

Do you have a sense of how your people feel today—and are you offering a chance for them to tell you, through town halls, surveys, intranet comments, and more? If you don’t have a civic engagement plan, is it time to rethink that?   

Plan for the coming year 

Assess your company’s risk. In what states do you have a footprint with your operations? What does the mood feel like there? Look at legislation around ESG and DEI. Bring forward the parts of your civic action plan that excelled in past years and sunset or modify what didn’t work. Make someone accountable for the planning and execution. What does success look like and what’s a meaningful KPI? Establish your business case for supporting democracy. Is it reduced risk? Increased employee engagement?  

Build trust in institutions 

Start with your own. Big business is less trusted than small businesses. There are many reasons, but a few are that big business can be seen as less transparent, not as accountable, and acting at odds with its stated values.  

Is your company as transparent and accountable as it can be? Accountability occurs when one does what one says. Does your company share goals and progress against them? Is your company forthcoming with the challenges it faces? It might seem counterintuitive to show the bad hand the company has been dealt, but those who surround you are more likely to empathize and give you the benefit of the doubt that you are trying to rectify the shortcoming. Particularly on climate, companies made bold goals but, in many cases, the innovations do not yet exist to meet the goals set. Or the goal post has moved as things like carbon credits have fallen out of favor.  How is your company progressing on its DEI commitments  from a few years ago? Has your company said anything about changes in political spending 

The next step is to support democracy and its institutions. How does your company interact with and talk about markets, regulatory environments, civic institutions, and civil society? Are you supporting them or are you unknowingly aiding in tarnishing their reputations? They are not perfect, but how can you find the good and share optimism for systems that work? How can democracy reflect the same values of accountability and transparency that we seek in our companies? 

Take your information sharing role seriously 

WEF’s annual risk report cites misinformation and disinformation as the number one threat over the next two years. And yet, employee internal communications channels are the most trusted source of information according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Have a process in place to source and share accurate, unbiased information. Look to sources like The Conversation. Share resources that will lead to solutions to our toughest challenges, as companies did during the Covid-19 outbreak in supporting employee choice around vaccines.  

Learn how to speak in ways that appeal to the most 

People are worried about polarization, so offer the antidote by pointing out how we can work together to solve a common problem and highlighting on what we can agree. Avoid rhetoric, division, and pointing out the opposition. It’s not a zero-sum game.  

Are you speaking in jargon or using words that cause confusion? Cut to the point and say what you mean. Natural resources, your people, your communities. That’s what your company cares about and what your programs are addressing. Don’t end the conversation with acronyms or buzz words. Start the conversation with solutions to the things that we all worry about.  

Opt for ’quiet politics’…to combat the noise we have been experiencing from politicians and social media. …opt for collaboration with…stakeholders over consensus on issues. …listen carefully to what is said but also to what’s unspoken.” CECP-affiliated companies can access our full toolkit on this topic.  

Give your people agency 

Your people want to do something. They might not know where to start or think that their actions will make a difference, but working through their company, their actions can scale and have deeper meaning. Companies have the mechanisms in place to support action—employee resource groups, paid time off to volunteer, matching gifts, pro bono, employee communications, and more. Look deeply at each opportunity to see how you can make their work in 2024 support trust in institutions, including your own. Your people can be your biggest advocates. Ask them what you are doing that breaks down trust. Ask them what you can do better, to provide solutions. They know.