When should a CEO or brand take a public stance on a controversial topic happening outside the four walls of the company? Never? Sometimes? And how do you decide, especially when the risks of speaking out seem to go up and up?
For sure, the advent of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 prompted all sorts of brands to take more public stands on race and a variety of other topics. Shortly thereafter, some of America’s biggest brands learned these can also be deep and dangerous waters.
The Walt Disney Co. is tangled in a litigation death match with the Governor of Florida over LGBTQ+ politics. Target stores ran into a buzzsaw of criticism from all sides after stocking PRIDE inventory and then backtracked amid complaints. And after the Anheuser-Busch brand Bud Light sponsored a trans performer, critics fiercely attacked. The parent company’s market share slumped, and the term “Bud Lighting” was born to describe a new form of culture war boycotting.
There can be direct business consequences, for instance with investment funds and banks who manage “Environmental, Sustainable, Governance” funds, as some U.S. states are formally banishing them with legislation. Interestingly, there are unusual allies to be made in these fractious topics, for instance, with some southern Republican governors (see Georgia) committing loudly to building factories to make electric vehicles and infrastructure.
Luckily, there is some very good news. There are communications tools for navigating if, when, where, and how to take a public stand on contentious public issues.
Step One: Think about your company’s core values. For an a-political auto parts store (for instance) perhaps there’s nothing wrong with staying on the sidelines and just offering great customer service. But if your company sells hiking backpacks and has a strong ethos about the wilderness environment, then you better be ready to step up on Earth Day. If your company has a direct tie to the NCAA, like it or not, you had better understand the NCAA’s stance on gender in sports. Take careful consideration of your corporate philanthropy too, as that can become a platform for putting your values into action.
Step Two: Build a diagnostic system for thinking things through clinically. This can include drafting a rubric of “10 Key Questions.” For instance, “Is our company already directly involved, such as lobbying for legislation?” “Is our staff directly involved because of their identity, geography, race, or social status?” “Is the issue self-evidently evil or wonderful?” Importantly, make sure to have the right people around the table, and include people who have special insight into these issues: HR, public relations, legal, and customer service. Look beyond the executive suite.
Then add tactical questions, such as “Is this controversy about a direct competitor?” (Spoiler: If “yes,” then steer clear.) “If we avoided saying something, would our customers see our silence as a betrayal?” You can also look into the future and tag upcoming events like Earth Day, Juneteenth, 9/11, or any number of important milestones.
Tally up the answers. If you get more “yeses” than “no’s,” then the system would argue towards taking a public stance, and then the conversation can shift towards what to say, how, where and to whom.
The point of using a checklist like this is not to force your hand or avoid a difficult conversation. Rather, the point is ensuring you have the conversation at all, and with the right people around the table. Your matrix may suggest staying out of the fray 90 percent of the time, but you’ll have the confidence of knowing why.
Revisit the checklist at regular intervals and be willing to drop the system for extraordinary circumstances. We know a CEO who took a strong public stance after a school shooting. Why? Because their mother was a teacher.
The real value of having a system is this: You avoid the vertigo of just wondering each day about what to say and where. You can defend your rationale, and you can plan ahead.
Lastly, be ready to defend whatever stance the organization takes. These are especially fractious times, where extreme political players are all-to-willing to single out brands for attack. Remembering the organization’s core values will help you absorb whatever criticism (or praise) comes along, and your brand can emerge stronger on the other side.
If you’d like to consult with Tucker/Hall Vice President Rich Mullins on this topic – or any topic that might help you navigate a tricky situation – please email him at email@example.com.