The Freedom to Speak Freely

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.

By Lance Morgan

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– who famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” – has been superseded by virtual vultures who are more inclined to persecute than defend speakers who deviate from the dogma of the political right or left.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

  • Not every issue requires engagement.
  • Speak out only on matters that genuinely reflect your values and the policy matters on which you have standing.
  • Try to focus on principles, not details. Complicated policy matters are rarely 100 percent good or bad. Addressing every clause is a recipe for confusion.

Choose your words carefully

  • The media, social and otherwise, demand instant reaction. But speed kills and words chosen in haste may be repented in leisure.
  • Develop a reasoned, carefully considered position, that aligns with your brand’s promise, not the media’s desires.
  • Be transparent and inclusive in developing the position. You don’t have to agree with all the competing voices but listening to them is a good idea.
  • Speak clearly and explicitly. Prevarication makes no friends.
  • Be prepared to fully explain what the brand stands for and why. Leave as little room for misinterpretation – deliberate or accidental – as possible.
  • Hold fast in the face of inevitable complaints. To paraphrase noted PR guru, Abe Lincoln: You can convince some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time. But you can’t convince all the people all the time.

Choose your timing carefully

  • Being the first responder conveys the benefits of leadership, but the first troops out of the trenches are the first targets.
  • For issues of extreme importance to the company and its brand, there is value to being the first to speak out.
  • But there is often nothing wrong with lending your voice but not leading the chorus.

Choose your allies carefully

  • Today’s friends can become tomorrow’s embarrassment.
  • History is filled with good ideas that go too far (see Revolution, France).
  • It’s always wise to be in good company, but the expressed positions should represent your values and no one else’s.
  • Companies are judged by the company they keep so be mindful about partnerships. Your brand shouldn’t have to defend views that don’t coincide. 

Choosing silence is an option

  • The famed historian, Will Durant, once said “one of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.” (What a lousy influencer he would have made.)
  • By nature and nurture, communicators reflexively dislike saying nothing. That’s especially true today when silence isn’t considered golden and others are always available to fill the information vacuum.
  • But when the issue du jour is about neither your brand’s core values, or matters that genuinely affect your company, staying on the sidelines can be a defensible and reasonable strategy.
  • Mr. Fink was right about the need to speak out when it matters, but carefully and deliberately and not in response to everything and everyone. Choices need to be made despite the criticisms that inevitably follow in our damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t world. And although you can’t rely on the Voltaires out there to come to your defense, there is always Mark Twain to provide some comfort: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
LanceM

Author

Lance specializes in developing and executing communications for public policy debates, crisis communications, and media training.

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