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Companies Can’t Respond to Everything—Choosing When and How to Speak Up

By Daryl Brewster, CEO, CECP

There is a lot of noise in the media nowadays, but one message is coming through clearly and consistently: workers and other key stakeholders want companies to react to the major events that impacts their lives. And no matter how much this might unnerve some CEOs or their boards, there is no going back to the old world of companies’ limited role in society.

Why it matters: The last few years have created polarizing events: systemic inequality, distrust in media, economic anxiety and more. 85% of corporate communicators believe corporate activism is growing, though this is namely because their company is committed to making positive social change.  With businesses still viewed as the most trusted institution, expectations remain high for its leaders to step up.

The big picture: Companies only have so much time to get a handle on these issues, and often must balance taking part in these conversations with other pressing business priorities such as innovation, employee engagement, meeting revenue goals, and more. 

Details: Based on previous CECP work, and insights from experts at 220+ leading companies affiliated with CECP, here are six relevant points for CEOs and their teams to evaluate and determine what and how they should speak up:

  • Live your corporate purpose. Clearly communicate your organization’s purpose and values or you may negatively impact employee trust.  Explicitly and authentically purpose-driven organizations garner higher employee trust than those that aren’t purpose-driven. They also indirectly strengthened trust by enhancing employees’ feelings of belonging and organizational identification during the COVID-19 pandemic. And when employees experienced a sense of purpose at work and believed their leaders set a clear direction and expectations, those companies outperformed the stock market, achieving returns 6.9% higher than the market.
  • Contemplate how the issue affects key stakeholders. Does the topic address the broader needs of multiple stakeholders, including employees, partners, the board, investors, and others? Determine if those who might disagree are an acceptable loss, and then focus on evaluating whether supporting the issue will make a “net positive” impact and difference in people’s lives and the business. While each stakeholder has their own asymmetric needs, CEOs and their teams can effectively assess the trade-offs across issues.
  • Engage with humility, vulnerability, and credibility. Before speaking out on a topic or making pledges, consider your company’s track record and then close any gaps. Communicating your perspective without considering your company’s strategy, purpose, and values may lead to inconsistent and misconstrued messaging. Actions and behaviors speak louder than words.
  • Be transparent by showing plans, progress, and measurement. Boards and executives can be proactive, and long-term planning demonstrates intentionality to investors. Companies can then back up promises from those plans with real investments that are as tangible as they are earnest, including donations of cash, product, and employees’ paid time, as well as action through daily business practices. For example, CECP’s Giving in Numbers™ found 71% of companies gave at least some form of non-cash community investment in 2021, such as product donations. While 92% gave direct cash from the company, 78% gave cash from at least one foundation. And measurement involves developing targets, tracking KPIs at the highest levels, and then reporting on progress.
  • Determine how your company is uniquely positioned to contribute and collaborate in helping to solve the issue. Drastically dream about what matters and why, including finding the sweet spot in support of an issue that is relevant to your company, industry, strategy, and employees. For example, Chobani has granted more than 2,000 employees shares worth up to 10% of the company’s value, while also donating millions of products to fight food insecurity in the U.S. Close cooperation is also vital in solving specific concerns, like improving workforce practices, and collaborations such as Southern Communities Initiative, Tent Partnership for Refugees, the Business Roundtable’s cybersecurity initiative, Tear the Paper Ceiling, Unlock Potential, and many more are proving more impact can be made when businesses advocate for changes together.
  • Diverse voices matter. Listen closely to voices outside the heteronormative spectrum and people of color to make the most informed decision that you can. Soliciting feedback from diverse stakeholders can help you promote equality of opportunity and protect against inequality. Customers, employees, or community leaders can often be powerful advocates for your position.

What to watch: Despite this process and preparation, there is always a risk to chiming in on a contentious public conversation, and there will always be someone who disagrees with your perspective. But the risk of not speaking out on issues inherently important to your business and its key stakeholders is far too great to remain silent. 

Bottom Line: Businesses can protect themselves from becoming mired in politics or polarizing events by issuing trustworthy information backed by data or science and by taking stands that consistently align with corporate values. Finding a higher purpose where common purpose may be difficult to find is key.

How do these points resonate with your company and your work? How do they align with your organization’s values, goals, and culture? How can you collaborate with other companies or organizations to make further impact on relevant issues? These six points shape the base of a framework that will guide your response in the moments that will inevitably arise and the actions you can take to back up your company’s response. Build bridges across your company to talk about what matters and how you can act. Do you have a story to tell about how your company acted? Contact CECP to share your story with others.