April 20, 2021
How to Decide If You Should Speak Out On Social Issues – And What To Say
Should we put out a statement? Apply this decision tree and find out
We saw it last year in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. We saw it again after the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January, and again amid the Georgia voting-rights outcry. We’re seeing it now in the wake of the guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin.
It’s getting harder and harder for business leaders to remain silent or neutral when events trigger an emotional public response. But while speaking publicly on these issues will always carry risks, the outcome also presents an opportunity – if not an obligation – to communicate.
In these moments, being able to draw on well-defined organizational values – what you stand for, and how you demonstrate and encourage behavior that lives up to it – should make the process easier, the reception less controversial and the potential for blowback less likely. But not all organizations’ values are apparent enough to make this communication easier. Some aren’t apparent at all.
If your organization falls into either of the latter two categories, our counsel is to get busy defining your values, in writing, now. Whatever happened in Georgia, or the Chauvin trial, it’s clear this won’t be the last time you’ll need something to guide you in addressing sensitive social moments. It may not be the last time this month.
But in the meantime, we’re also here to tell you that, no matter where you are in defining your values, you can get to a sensible decision if you think it through.
Applying a decision tree
Imagine for a moment the decision tree you might apply to the Chauvin scenario.
- Will members of your constituency be impacted by this event? Very likely, given the impact and meaning of the event to Black and brown communities who are disproportionate victims of police violence; that said, in this and other scenarios, it may depend on how you define your constituency: Is it your employees? Your clients? The communities you work in and serve? All or some of the above?
- Will you feel pressure from employees, clients, vendors or activists/other parties to take a position? This depends on your proximity to the event, but organizations of all types are experiencing this pressure more and more. If you’ve come this far and expect pressure to respond, then this is a no-brainer. You need to prepare a statement.
But hold on. The decision tree doesn’t end there. Consider this:
- Is this issue divisive, and/or is your statement likely to cause disagreement or division within your constituency? Put differently, will your constituency agree in its interpretation of the outcome as clearly right or clearly wrong? In the best of circumstances, unanimity is rare in a pluralistic society. It certainly seems impossible within our current hyperpartisan pluralism. So, the answer is likely a yes.
So do you prepare a statement? The decision is no longer quite so clear, complicated by the high likelihood that while you may satisfy one segment of your audience, you risk alienating another or creating divisions among segments – between say, those employees who would defund the police and others who support Blue Lives Matter.
Thus, your decision needs to run through another critical filter:
- Is the issue aligned with your organization’s mission? If it aligns with or impacts your mission, start writing.
- Have you made such statements in the past? Have you taken actions to back those statements up? 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.
All that said, it is quite possible that your mission is in no way related to the circumstances of this event. Whether you’re back in no-brainer territory depends on the final branch of this decision tree:
- Is everyone in your organization clear about what it values?
- If yes, does the recent event offend those values? If yes again, your decision to communicate is clear.
- If no – or you’re not sure – does it present an opportunity to affirm your organizational values? To evolve them? Or to contribute to positive change through a statement followed by a change in behavior?
The need to define your organization’s values – today
As we’ve seen, sometimes the decision gets trickier the more you think about it – especially if you started thinking about it for the first time the night before the verdict.
Remember that any statement that is not rooted in broadly recognized organizational values will be (correctly) judged to lack authenticity and credibility. Rather than contribute to the conversation, it will add to the noise. Under these circumstances, it would be better that you say nothing. As we’ve seen, the backlash against companies that offer weak statements regarding depredations of social justice can be fierce.
This is the world we live in: Events that trigger strong emotions on a nationwide scale are coming at us with alarming frequency, and people are looking to business executives for leadership with an intensity that may make many executives uncomfortable. Our recommendation: If you haven’t applied thoughtful energy to defining what your organization values and how you will demonstrate and encourage behavior that expresses those values, this is the time for it. It has never been more necessary.