One of the biggest things that have changed for communicators in the past three years is that executives need help communicating their stance on social issues. And most have no idea how to do that.
Some have tried and failed and then hired comms help. While others have been smart enough from the beginning to understand that they are out of their depth when it comes to communicating their values.
The challenge, of course, is that their entire careers, they’ve been told not to talk about their values. They were told not to talk about politics or religion in business settings because they would always ostracize half of their customers.
And then the pandemic hit, and along with it came social justice movements, heightened climate change, and, of course, the most contentious president of our time. Suddenly, they were told, “You can’t sit back and keep quiet. It’s time to stand for something.”
But how? This is a major shift in strategy, and some (maybe even most?) are not comfortable with it.
Why Are We Not Doing Anything?
Last week, CNN published a story titled, “Why Corporate America Has Grown Silent on Gun Violence.” In the wake of the Nashville shooting at an elementary school. Its reporter noticed that no one has said—or done—anything of late.
In 2018 and 2019, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, Citigroup, and more banned the sale of assault rifles and ammunition and imposed gun restrictions on business customers. Corporate America was doing something about it.
But as of late? Crickets.
The story says, “Few major companies have changed their policies related to guns in recent years. Their efforts to curb gun violence have run into fierce pushback from Republican lawmakers that oppose both gun restrictions and corporations taking on social roles.”
In fact, more than 50 House Republicans introduced a bill last year that would “fight back against ‘boardroom gun control’” and prevent any businesses that receive federal funding from turning away firearm businesses.
Couple that with the fear of losing business due to publicly standing for something and being uncomfortable with it because it’s not what they’ve done their entire careers, and it’s no wonder we are here.
But Is It the Right Approach?
But is it the right approach? And what role do we play as communicators who are on the front lines of messaging?
There are, of course, two camps. One camp is that if you believe strongly about something, you don’t care who you alienate. They probably aren’t the right customer for your business anyway. The other camp is wanting to be a master to all—and not risk alienating customers just because you believe something they do not.
I used to be in the latter camp for my own business. We never talked about politics or social issues at work because we had many clients on the other side of us. And truth be told, we could still work with them because life wasn’t as polarizing as it is now.
Now I find myself unfollowing or unfriending people on social media who sit on the other side of what I believe. I just don’t have the time or the patience anymore. Just the other day, a friend posted something about the need for gun safety, and one of his friends commented, “I love my kids. I love my grandkids. I don’t want anything to happen to them. But you cannot take my guns!”
So. Flipping. Ignorant.
Therein lies the issue, right? And, until it does happen to their kids or grandkids, they won’t do anything about it.
This only changes if Corporate America and Main Street businesses take action and do things to make change. Thoughts and prayers don’t make change. We do. With action.
How to Determine When to Take Action
This is not an easy thing to do. I recognize that. I have several coaching clients who constantly tell me their boss just isn’t ready—or worse, they don’t believe. With those clients, we spend a lot of our time together figuring out how to work with what the executive is comfortable with and doing what is right for their customers, employees, and communities.
I always ask three questions:
- Is the issue tied to your corporate strategy?
- Do you have the potential to make a difference on it?
- Is there potential backlash for taking a position?
Remember when we were told we were going into lockdown, and we had a few days to prepare before it happened? All of the emails that came out from companies said, “Out of an abundance of caution…”
I mean, they all used that phrase. From grocery stores and local restaurants to your favorite toilet paper brand and toothpaste company. It made sense for some, but I didn’t need an email from Crest or Tide stating that they, too, were following the federal regulation. No one did. And yet, everyone sent an email stating their work-from-home policies “out of an abundance of caution.”
When you use that as an example to answer my three questions, it’s easy to see whether or not you should communicate your policy or stance.
Where it gets more challenging is in the more polarizing issues. Let’s stick with gun safety as an example for now.
Is It Tied to Your Corporate Strategy?
Is the issue tied to your corporate strategy? I would argue that gun safety is tied to everyone’s corporate strategy—and for some clients, it’s a battle I’m willing to fight (for others, I don’t have to fight it because they’re already there). But for argument’s sake, let’s say that the correlation between gun safety and your corporate strategy isn’t clear.
Do you have brick-and-mortar locations? Do your customers or employees live in communities plagued by gun violence? Are any of your locations in communities plagued by gun violence? Do your execs donate to lawmaker campaigns that have NRA ties?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” or “maybe,” the issue is tied to your corporate strategy.
Can You Make a Difference?
Now you can move to whether or not you have the opportunity to make a difference. Again, I would argue here that we all have the opportunity to make a difference. To me, gun safety is not a political issue. We should all care about it deeply because children are dying. I’m scared to death that someone is going to get into my kid’s school with a gun, and we’re going to be the latest news story that people are so immune to they just keep scrolling.
So yes, you have the opportunity to make a difference. The only way this changes is if we all do something about it.
If you have brick-and-mortar locations, ban firearms—even if you live in states that allow them. I’m lucky to live in Chicago, where they are not allowed, so I can easily advise on this. But take action. Ban them in your locations.
Invest in your communities that are plagued by gun violence. Provide after-school opportunities so kids have somewhere to go while their parents or grandparents are working. Go into the schools and spend time with the kids to learn what’s important to them—and invest in that. Volunteer. Do more. The internet is full of ideas on how and what you can do to invest in your communities. Brainstorm as a team and then go out and see what actually works.
And, if you’re like me with a professional services firm that has remote employees, become vocal. Use your content to take action and provide advice and recommendations. Risk alienating readers, viewers, listeners, and clients. Stand up for what you believe in. Do something.
What Is the Potential Backlash?
The last question is to weigh the potential risks and figure out what the backlash might be. It might not make sense for some societal issues—like sending an email about your abundance of caution, just because it’s not necessary or doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, as many corporations did after George Floyd was murdered.
In that case, it’s important to understand what the backlash might be even when you absolutely do the right thing. In the wake of Floyd’s murder, many corporations donated money, but unintentionally created chaos and an inability for people to actually do the kind of systemic change work that was required.
If you’re doing this kind of communications work, you’ll find that the answers to my three questions make sense for you to take action and not stay silent, while allowing you to think it all the way through versus simply reacting.
It’s up to us to influence our bosses or clients when it comes to social issues. We cannot stay silent. We cannot send thoughts and prayers. We have to do something. Today, tomorrow, and every day after that.