What can go wrong when businesses speak up on social issues

Opinion: Commenting on protests and referendums may seem like the right thing for a CEO to do, but it can get complicated fast.

by Stuart Thomson
Last Updated: 16 Jun 2020

Management Today recent posed the question: Should CEOs - or the companies they run - publicly express political beliefs?

The reality is that the two are rarely easily distinguishable. There is not an executive equivalent of the ‘RTs are not endorsements’ notes that appear on Twitter profiles. If a CEO makes a statement then it applies to the company as well.

But just consider the alternative. If a CEO statement says ‘I am speaking in a personal capacity’ then that just opens up more questions and could inflict more reputational damage. Does that mean it doesn’t apply to the company? If the suggestion is that the company wouldn’t endorse the position, then why not?  

Of course, many CEOs and companies will make a statement because they fundamentally believe in a position or cause. But once it goes mainstream then communications teams across the world will be encouraging support for the position as well. 

Actions speak louder than tweets

Amid the global outrage spurred by the death of George Floyd, a lot of companies made expressions of solidarity, but it can be very difficult to separate genuine commitment from people just worried about looking bad - after all, no one wants to be the only one among their competitors not to speak out, do they?

There is clearly a need for companies to re-examine what their values are, and whether their organisation is living up to them, because the ones lacking genuine commitment will be called out.

But the issue goes further than even that. Public demonstrations of support have to be accompanied by actions and details of how the company plans to live up to the standards it says it supports.

That brings a requirement for transparency in order to ensure that the company can then be held accountable to those standards. The audience that takes on the monitoring role will vary – it could be consumers, the media or politicians. But without transparency, the statement becomes hollow, meaningless and potentially counter-productive. 

Nowhere to hide

Some companies though prefer to avoid highly political issues altogether. What was remarkable about Brexit, especially during the referendum itself, was the extent to which companies stayed out of the debate. 

Some have taken a higher profile but they tend to be the ones that really will be impacted by, for instance, the failure to agree a trade deal with the European Union. In other words, the issue is so utterly fundamental to their operations that they have little choice but to raise their profile on the issue.

Trade bodies and associations will often pick up on the more difficult conversations with Government. But that brings with it risks as well. The Government briefed against several of the more well-known business groups because of the negative position adopted on Brexit. They were simply not seen as in-step with making the most of the opportunities that the Government believes that Brexit will deliver.

So any political statements or positions risk pushback by some audiences whilst being rapturously endorsed by others. Included among these are one’s own employees and customers - increasingly comprising millennials and Gen Z, who are widely seen to like their brands and employers taking a stand. 

All that needs to be considered before a statement is issued. But fundamentally, any statement has to be accompanied by action and transparency. Anything less and you're asking for trouble.

Stuart Thomson is head of public affairs at BDB Pitmans. 

Image credit: Martin Barraud via Getty images



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