To speak or not to speak. That is the question on the minds of many leaders these days as they try and steer their organizations through a unique landscape of universal and instantaneous communications, conflicting stakeholder interests, soaring emotions, unforgiving deadlines and unrelenting pressure to demonstrate a company’s values and deliver its narrative.
In his annual letter to CEOs, Blackrock Chairman Lawrence Fink said, “it’s never been more essential for CEOs to have a consistent voice,” so that stakeholders hear directly from, and are engaged and inspired by, them.
But it’s the next sentence that stands out: “They don’t want to hear us, as CEOs, opine on every issue of the day, but they do need to know where we stand on the societal issues intrinsic to our companies’ long-term success.”
Hence the Hamlet-like dilemma facing today’s brands and the CEOs, corporate communicators and all corporate leaders who speak for them at a time when every policy utterance irritates someone who can vent their anger at the company.
It is one of the many ironies of our age that we constantly hear calls for national “conversations” about the great issues of the day, and then have only to wait nanoseconds before the calls are overwhelmed by outrage as soon as the discussion begins.
Voltaire – who famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” – has been superseded by virtual vultures who are more inclined to persecute than defend speakers who deviate from the dogma of the political right or left.
A variation of this problem exists in our private communications as well. Who among us who has not restricted their language, hidden their true beliefs, or completely failed to engage in genuine conversation for fear of triggering an unwanted over-reaction?
Businesses now face unprecedented stakeholder pressure when leaders take stands on political and social issues.
Under the circumstances, it seems fair to ask if we have freedom of speech if we’re disinclined to speak freely?
American brands face the same dilemma confronting individuals – whether to risk public scorn, mitigate it through self-censorship, or try and avoid it entirely by silence – but with a wrinkle that adds to the anguish of the decision. External influencers don’t prompt individuals to dive into the public vortex. But businesses now face unprecedented stakeholder pressure when leaders take stands on political and social issues.
In a hyperpartisan and hypercritical environment, any comment is likely to anger a significant portion of a business’ customer or employee base, and cause heartburn for the brand. But a mitigation strategy that produces pabulum, or a silence that produces nothing, can still provoke criticism about a company’s cowardly profile.
We live in a culture of criticism and no matter what path a company chooses, criticism will ensue. But while threading this communications’ needle might take Betsy Ross-level skills, there are a few principles to consider in deciding whether and how to engage:
Choose your issues carefully
Choose your words carefully
Choose your timing carefully
Choose your allies carefully
Choosing silence is an option