October 5, 2021
Communicating CEO Accountability in an Era of Social Reform
To enhance their company’s reputation in a complicated social landscape — and to ensure long-term profitability — elevated CMOs must design smart, authentic ways for executives to communicate about public responsibility.
“Agua!” That one simple word sent Coca-Cola’s stock plummeting by $5 billion when elite soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo moved two bottles of Coke out of view and asked for water during a press conference. No matter that the soft drink giant was the UEFA European Championship’s sponsor. The meaning of Ronaldo’s gesture was clear: As a health-conscious athlete, I drink water, not Coke.
And just like that, Coca-Cola experienced the economic impact of dragging their feet. How long have they known that their signature product increases the risk of insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure? And how long have they sidestepped using their power to positively influence health and wellness in a meaningful way?
It’s not an option for companies and their leaders to avoid entering into the fray of complex social challenges anymore. You might not be selling beverages that have the potential to damage people’s health. But your stakeholders still expect you to hold your professional services firm accountable for the ways in which you do impact your community.
As the C-suite’s new utility players, forward-thinking CMOs will help executive leaders skillfully participate in challenging, important conversations across a spectrum of social concerns. Use the following questions as a starting point to help your CEO enter into — and influence — the dialogues that matter in our world today.
How Do We Communicate Effectively in an Era of Reform?
As the keeper of your company’s narrative and steward of its expressed written mission, you are the best-placed, most-equipped person to serve as the company’s sextant. In this capacity, you’re required to measure the angles between controversial social issues to help your brand navigate uncharted territory.
In The Square and the Tower, Niall Fergusson offers a warning to CEOs who seek to maintain control using outdated, top-down methods. He says, “Hierarchical institutions have been challenged by novel networks, their impact magnified by technology…We should probably expect continued network-driven disruption of hierarchies that cannot reform themselves.”
Reform is hard. So is dismantling age-old expectations and norms associated with positions of power. But we can’t afford to bury our heads in the sand as social issues increasingly become business issues. Nor can we rely on authoritative communication styles of yesteryear. Rather, we must communicate with vulnerability and demonstrate a willingness to listen. If we don’t reform ourselves, we will be left behind.
But in order to help your CEO traverse this new terrain, your organization needs to grapple with a foundational question. What do we stand for?
What Issues Should Our Professional Services Firm Speak Out About?
The CMO-as-sextant role requires you to articulate how your company’s brand promise plays out in a charged social and political environment. To do it well, you must be truthful and authentic while simultaneously remaining accountable. This is necessary even if — or especially when — your best efforts to do better are met with criticism.
For example, remember when Dove tried to make bottles that reflected body diversity or when Target introduced transgender lavatories? Some sang these companies’ praises. Others decried them. But despite backlash, both companies boldly sparked conversations that were necessary and valuable — and that were in line with their own stated values.
In the professional services landscape, many firms are making a concerted effort to include Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting in their mantle of accountability. Lawyers, accountants, investors, and engineers measure ESG to answer to stakeholders and governments. But the thoughtful CMO should be thinking about how executives can communicate ESG-related issues to all audiences.
Furthermore, CMOs can and should measure audience sentiment and response to these efforts. In this way, CMOs can connect the dots for executives and show how speaking out on societal issues can impact brand reputation.
ESG is just one example. You may be focused on going beyond the performative in how your firm responds to issues of racial injustice. Or you might want to combat misinformation and speak out against fake news. Whatever the issue, it all comes down to this. What are your firm’s values? What issues matter to you? And in what way do you hope to leave your corner of your industry better than you found it?
Is it Time to Communicate a Broader View of Profitability?
Part of charting a course toward a different, reformed future is opening an authentic conversation about what it means to be profitable. That’s because stakeholders now demand that the pursuit of profit be tempered by a concern for doing what’s right. It’s not enough to make money. Organizations also need to consider the planet, marginalized groups, future generations, and society as a whole.
Weigh what it might mean for your CEO and your firm to embrace a more holistic view of profitability. How would that allow you to communicate a meaningful brand promise to your stakeholders and audience? What stories can you tell about the ways your firm is integrating business needs with social needs? And how might this evolved approach to financial governance actually lead to greater loyalty and commitment from stakeholders, employees, and clients?
Revenue is important. But if we want to create a more just, healthy, and sustainable world, it just might begin by expanding our definition of profitability.
CMOs Must Continue to Equip Executives to Communicate About Social Concerns
If your CEO doesn’t take a stand on an issue or concern that resonates with your market, somebody else will. And if that ‘somebody’ happens to have the power and influence of Cristiano Ronaldo in the Digital Age, watch out.
Your stakeholders expect vulnerability, authenticity, accountability, and a willingness to listen. So in order to augment your organization’s reputation and remain profitable in this new era, you need to prepare your CEO to engage in challenging conversations. All of that starts by asking the right questions.