March 21, 2022
As Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Confirmation Hearings Commence, How Should Professional Services Organizations Decide to Weigh In?
The ground-breaking nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court means professional services firms have a lot to consider when it comes to their PR strategy. The key question is whether – and how – to weigh in publicly on an appointment that could have far-reaching business and social implications.
As her Senate confirmation hearings begin this week, Jackson stands on the threshold of one of the most consequential jobs in the country, ruling on issues that are critical to U.S. business, governance and civic life. If confirmed, she would be the first Black woman on the court as well as the first justice to have worked representing poor criminal defendants.
Her nomination comes as the public is increasingly looking to business leaders for guidance and opinions at important moments of civic discourse. Offering a point of view at such times shouldn’t be done without care. But organizations that consider the matter strategically have an opportunity — and in some cases, a responsibility — to express true positions of authority at a key juncture in U.S. history.
Jackson’s nomination isn’t the only high-profile personnel move that might tempt professional service organizations to speak up. We asked Greentarget’s senior leaders about the advice they offer clients who come to us for guidance in these moments, and it starts with a few questions.
Is There a Direct Connection?
The first couple queries are fairly open-and-shut and pertain to the direct connection to the person being nominated or appointee.
Does the nominee/appointee have a personal connection to your organization?
An organization that has such a connection almost certainly has the authority to say something. That might not be the case if, say, a 67-year-old is appointed to a significant position 40 years after working at a law firm as an associate. But if the connection is stronger, putting out a short congratulatory statement that acknowledges the connection is probably a smart play, assuming things didn’t end on bad terms.
Making such a statement is a point of credentialing for an organization, even if it’s not one that will likely generate tons of headlines. Of course, there’s the inverse to this question …
Does your organization have an obvious conflict when it comes to commenting?
This is probably another question without much gray area. The decision to say something publicly might be a simple “no” because there’s a direct conflict – in the case of Jackson, a law firm might be set to argue before the Supreme Court in the next term. That might not automatically rule out saying something, but it could limit what can be safely said. And a milquetoast point-of-view might not be worth the time it takes to work it up.
What if There’s No Direct Connection?
Depending on the answers to the first two questions, some organizations may simply shrug and move on. But there are other important questions to consider before doing so.
Does the position relate directly to a major focus or emphasis of your organization?
Say your organization does a lot of work in securities or finance. It’s likely that your team includes someone – probably multiple someones – with strong perspectives when a new SEC chairman is named. Or, perhaps your organization has expertise on workplace issues. The appointment of a new secretary of labor will probably elicit a reaction or two from members of your team.
Still, making public comments in such moments isn’t a given. It’s important to actually have something to say about the person being nominated – and that what you’re saying is insightful enough for the reward to outweigh any potential risk.
So how do I know if what we have to say is insightful enough?
For either of the above examples, your organization’s subject matter experts might have thoughts on how the new SEC chair or labor secretary might perform, how policy or enforcement might change and, ideally, practical guidance on how companies should adapt. Importantly, subject matter expertise doesn’t have to be confined to the focuses of practice groups within your organization.
In the case of Jackson’s nomination, Littler utilized an existing podcast on inclusion, equity and diversity to post an interview between Cindy-Ann Thomas, the co-chair of the firm’s EEO & Diversity Practice Group, and Bernice Bouie Donald, a federal judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Thomas and Donald, both of whom are Black women, discussed the importance of diversity on the Supreme Court, strategies for female jurists of color in managing biases and advice from Donald for other female attorneys of color, among other topics.
Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk
The life and professional experiences of Thomas and Donald meant they had gravitas to comment on Jackson’s nomination. But Littler as an organization also could authentically and effectively weigh in because the firm has addressed similar issues for five years on the podcast (in addition to a variety of other channels). These factors tie directly to the next question on our list.
Is your organization able to speak to that point effectively and authentically, particularly in historic moments?
This was a question that came up a lot over the past couple years as organizations decided whether and how to contribute to the conversation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and a broader racial reckoning. As my colleague, Steve DiMattia, smartly noted last year, it’s important that public comments in these moments aren’t just words:
The authenticity and credibility of any statement issued to address a fraught moment will not be judged against the values that you claim to profess but by the values you demonstrate through your actions. Values reveal themselves in observable behavior. And an organization that claims to stand for diversity and inclusion, but which has done nothing to advance diversity and inclusion, needs to think carefully about how it participates in the conversation about diversity and inclusion or risk alienating its audience.
The Need(?) to Say Something in the Digital Age
Here’s one more piece to the puzzle: Not only do we live in an era when news can make it around the world in minutes, we live in one in which technology makes it easier than ever to hold organizations’ feet to the fire.
Take what happened during International Women’s Day earlier this month. A slew of organizations posted what were fairly banal comments meant to celebrate the day – and were then quickly skewered by a bot that replied to the original posts with pay gap data about the organizations. The organizations, many of which quickly deleted their original tweets, learned the hard way that it’s never been more important to think through points-of-view before going public with them.
But that shouldn’t keep companies from commenting at all. As my colleagues Pam Munoz and Howell J. Malham Jr., noted last year, “It’s not an option for companies and their leaders to avoid entering into the fray of complex social challenges anymore.”
It could be argued that companies can enter the fray without entering it at every possible moment – and in the case of Jackson’s nomination, the moment might simply not be right based on the criteria outlined above. Indeed, organizations should pick their spots, because an empty/by-the-numbers move will be at best a non-factor.
But smart and incisive commentary, delivered thoughtfully and at the right time, is likely worth the risk, and it can make for a smarter conversation.