Communications Response to Current Events & Social Issues
Frequently, something significant happens that captures public attention. Natural disasters, shootings, pandemics, elections, insurrections, controversial behavior by public figures. Companies and their leaders are called upon to take a stand and/or act to address these events.
This can be one of the more complex challenges a communications leader can face. You can’t address every issue or event out there. There would be literally no room in your comms calendar for anything else. So when and how do you engage? Generally, it’s helpful to develop a framework to turn to as you figure this out. In this post, I’ll tell you how I think about it, direct you to a couple other frameworks, and suggest how to develop your own.
I’m not really a linear thinker, so when I am considering what to do, I tend to ask myself a bunch of questions and then spit out a recommendation. Some other frameworks are more like decision trees or flow charts, which I’ll get to.
Here’s the questions I consider when determining if a company should address an issue or event:
Does this directly impact our employees or power users (AKA our community)? Do we think or know they want us to say something?
If yes, this weighs in my “speak up” column. I think it’s important that the people who identify with our company as employees or active users know we care about them and the issues they face. No stakeholder group is not a monolith, so I give most weight to the opinions of those who are actually impacted by the event or issue.
Do we have a definitive, meaningful point-of-view (POV) on this? (And who is “we”?)
You probably aren’t surveying your entire company on every issue, so I’m really talking about your core leadership team here. Do your CEO and their direct reports have a POV? Do other relevant leaders such as your DEI, ERG, local office, or social impact leader have a POV? If they share a common, strongly held POV on an issue, that again leans me toward speaking up.
Does this relate to any of our corporate brand, values, mission, or impact areas?
I can best describe this with an example. Say your company makes a product that it markets mostly toward women, your stated mission is around empowering women to be their best selves, and advancement for women and girls is the focus area of your corporate foundation. In this case, it stands to reason that the company or an executive would speak up on gender equity issues as they arise because this aligns with your brand, mission, and impact areas. If your values are strictly inward or business oriented, this might not apply as often.
Are we taking any relevant, meaningful actions?
This is about making sure your public statement doesn’t read as lip service. Are we making a donation, starting a partnership, changing a policy or benefit, conducting a training, making a product change? Now, if you wait until your house is in perfect order before you say anything, you’ll be quiet forever. But, in general, you want the inside to match the outside and you want words to be backed up with actions. This is what separates genuine from performative communications. If we’re taking meaningful action, that’s another one in favor of speaking up.
Who will be against our POV? What harm might this cause our company to speak out? Are we prepared to stick it out?
The last thing you want to do is speak out and then walk it back due to stakeholder pressure. It’s worse than saying nothing – it’s seen as weak and unprincipled. So consider all your stakeholders — customers, prospects, employees, investors, “the public” — who is likely to disagree with you, what actions are they likely to take if they disagree, and can you handle the consequences?
Sometimes this is a no brainer. Let’s say there was a natural disaster, and you donate money to a well-regarded relief fund and make a statement as such. Probably no one is going to boycott you for that. But what about more controversial issues? This is the capitalist part of the framework. Your company is typically not in the business of putting itself in situations where it loses money. How many customers could we lose by taking this stance? Could they boycott? How will this impact employee morale? Could they walk out? Can we, quite literally, afford to take this stand?
Part of your job in comms is to have your finger on the pulse of your various stakeholder groups so you can advise your leadership as to the potential backlash and you can collectively make an informed decision. Talk to your sales leadership, your social media team, your government and investor relations teams, and others who are directly engaging with stakeholders so you can bring this knowledge to the table.
This is not to say you should acquiesce to naysayers. Someone will always detract or, on the other side, accuse you of being performative or not doing enough (sometimes rightfully). That doesn’t mean you do nothing. Thicken your skin and do what’s right for your core stakeholders and your company.
How and what to communicate
If you decide to say something, you have various options.
Internal vs. external: If your employees seem hungry for leadership on an issue, but the outside world is not clamoring for your take, or you’re worried about alienating stakeholders or seeming performative, consider internal-only comms. If you do internal-only comms, be prepared for them to leak. If you do external comms, they should be accompanied by internal comms.
Various channels: Internally, for many matters, a company-wide chat, email, or all hands remarks from a senior exec will do. For more complex issues or issues that deeply impact employees, you may need to do more – host an internal convening event, provide a resource list, and so forth. Externally, your options can range from a single social post to a full campaign with a press release, blog, multi-platform social push, media interviews, advertising campaign, and so forth. If you’re going all out, you better have something meaningful to say and significant actions to back it up.
As a side note, if something major is going down in the public discourse, I recommend holding unrelated social posts and other external comms for a couple days. Social media serves many purposes, including acting as a place where people process and share information. When people are doing that, frankly, they don’t give a crap about your whitepaper on the future of crypto or whatever.
Executive vs. corporate comm: Not everything needs to come from the official corporate channels, such as your company blog or Twitter. Sometimes it can be appropriate for an executive, especially your CEO or another high-profile leader, to send the communication themself. I would say this is definitely a best practice internally – the message should come from a leader, instead of the comms team. But it also applies externally, such as your CEO signing a petition or publishing a social post (which your official account could reshare). Consider the executive’s genuine interest and social identities before making them your spokesperson for an issue or event. If an issue does not personally impact the executive, take care that the communication wording centers on the impacted folks. Note also that you cannot separate the executive from the company. While they are their own person, if an officer of your company takes a stand on a controversial issue, you can expect that your company will receive the consequences, good or bad, as well.
So let’s say you’ve decided on an audience and channel, now the question is: what do you say? Well, this depends on the specific situation, but some typical elements may include:
Your company stance/POV — “We are disheartened, concerned about …we stand with this community...”
Your action — “We have made a donation to this charity, we are hosting several educational events, we are providing our service at no cost to impacted areas…”
A sense of purpose/perspective in making the statement — “We know this is a small step…we want to express our support and solidarity...”
If this is an internal comm, resources for employees — “Please take the time you need to process...we have these mental health benefits…”
In general, keep it simple and less is more. And keep your tone straightforward. Folks are typically not looking to companies for long, emotional screeds. They simply want to know where you stand and how you are backing up your stance. Descriptions of actions you’re taking should come off as factual, not self-congratulatory.
To illustrate, here are some examples of CEOs taking stands on social issues:
Here are some examples of companies taking stands on their official corporate channels:
Here are some examples of companies going all in with a communications or marketing campaign around social issues:
Other, more frameworky frameworks
Many great comms minds have been thinking and writing about these issues. For example, Axios and Harvard Business Review have both put out decision-making frameworks. You’ll note there are several overlapping elements in these with what we've already discussed – internal and external stakeholders, company values, actions being taken, and so forth. You should check out various frameworks, including these, as you think about your own company’s response to issues and events.
I recommend taking all this in and developing your own framework that aligns with your company’s particulars and values. If you don’t know where to begin, I suggest hosting an executive tabletop exercise to develop and stress test your principles. Get your senior executive team together and present them with five or six scenarios to talk through. As examples:
It’s January 6, 2021 and employees are beginning to post real-time about the US Capitol insurrection – how should leadership respond?
It’s June 2020 and several leading companies are taking stances in support of the Black Lives Matter movement – will you speak out too?
There is an extremely destructive earthquake in Indonesia, where we have no personnel or offices – do we make a donation / communication?
What if the earthquake happened in Japan where we do have an office and a significant customer base?
I’d add in one or two about a recurring event to get a feel for those matters too…
It’s International Women’s Day – what should we communicate about it, if anything?
It's the UK local elections and we have a big UK employee base – what’s our communication, if anything?
I’ve run or participated in similar round tops for content moderation and other tricky issues. They should be orchestrated carefully so you’re using executive time wisely, but can be worth their weight in gold. Where your execs come down on these scenarios, combined with what you know about your company, employee base, values, and the other frameworks out there should come together to help you to develop a basic framework you can socialize with your leadership and then put into action.
The most thoughtful and well-received comms result from collaborating directly with impacted parties. Consider that basically a requirement. But don’t forget to take into account the emotional labor placed on these folks when they work on these activities with you. The ERG leader organizing an internal event about violence against their community, the country leader recommending local charities after a natural disaster. These folks are dealing with a lot. Think about what you can do, as the comms pro and their colleague, to take some of the work off their plate. What can you offer to facilitate, draft, schedule, connect, and so forth in this process?
Some frameworks will lead you toward not speaking most of the time, whereas I tend to lean toward speaking up on various issues, even if it's to a more limited audience such as internally. Companies and stakeholder groups are collections of people. It is good to wade in, sometimes, to show you care, when it comes from a real place, is collaborative with impacted parties, and takes consideration of the potential pitfalls.
Just with anything I write about in this blog, I gathered this knowledge from direct professional experience. On this topic, in particular, I learned most from working with my former colleagues in DEI at Zoom, who are deeply thoughtful and knowledgeable in this area. This is not one of those comms things you can afford to mess up and re-do. So as you are developing your own framework, I’d encourage you to seek out guidance from experts and do your research.