The recent Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights prompted many companies to make a statement on the issue to both employees and the public. Other recent issues in the headlines – Georgia’s election law, Florida’s “Don’t say gay” bill, COVID-19 vaccines and the January 2021 Capitol riot and subsequent hearings, to name a few – have also resulted in official statements or pledges from CEOs, putting pressure on business leaders to take a stand. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer affirmed a growing distrust of media and government, with a significant number of respondents wanting businesses to take more of a leadership role in addressing societal problems.
With 56% of U.S. workers supportive of business leaders speaking out about political and social issues, it would seem logical that businesses should weigh in on hot-button topics. But not so fast. While a 2020 Adzooma survey found that 63% of respondents said they were more likely to buy from a brand that speaks out about politics, 67.5% of those surveyed said they would purchase elsewhere if they don’t agree with the company’s statements.
Follow Your Brand
“You have to do what makes sense for your brand and audience,” said Shana Harris, chief operating officer of Warschawski, a Baltimore-based national boutique marketing communications agency. “Clarify your brand and values. Knowing your brand and culture will direct you to what you should be focusing on. There’s no right or wrong, but ask yourself whether taking a stand on an issue fits with your brand and mission.”
Harris cautions business leaders to remember that while the majority of employees and customers might agree with a particular stance, there will be those who hold a different opinion. “It’s better to focus on valuing everyone and creating a safe and welcoming atmosphere. Respect all beliefs and support expression of beliefs. People should feel free to share their beliefs and identity. Taking a stand might look trendy now, but there may be issues you aren’t thinking of that could result in a potentially dangerous situation for your brand.”
Be Authentic and Consistent
Another risk in taking an official stance is whether the organization can or should align with that stance going forward. While a public statement may garner immediate positive attention, opinion can quickly change if the company appears less than authentic. “Some companies make statements but then don’t back it up with actions,” Harris noted. “You win by being real and authentic and truly accepting everyone and their values. This is a more honest way of supporting employees and customers.”
Harris also emphasizes the need for consistency. For example, “Decide on which holidays or observances to recognize or celebrate and make clear guidelines. Stick to those policies so when questions arise (about what the company is or isn’t observing), you can answer those questions in an honest and transparent way,” she said.
But what happens when companies face pressure – either from employees or customers – to take a stand? Harris advised that leaders view those situations as an opportunity “to communicate your values and why you are in business. Remember that you’re not in business to please everyone. Respond by showing what you believe in – delivering your product or service and maintaining a respectful workplace. Reiterate your focus and bring it back to the brand.”
“Make sure employees and customers know who you are,” Harris emphasized. “Be consistent and clear in how you interact and engage. Above all, respect people and allow them to be individuals.”
For advice on what to do when current events hit home, see our previous blog post, “Why Crisis Communications is Crucial and What You Can Do to Prepare.”
Deborah Shapiro is a writer for AMA Baltimore. She is the Corporate Communications and PR Specialist at Danfoss. You can follow her on LinkedIn.