When Should We Say Something About Social Issues? A Way Forward.
The authority on mixternal comms
Throughout 2022 I’ve been keeping score. In one-on-one chats, webinars, social media, chat rooms, and even a poll in Mister Editorial I’ve been tracking which topics comms-rades have been asking for help the most. The topic that has garnered the most requests for assistance is in helping decide when and how to communicate about socio-political events. Here are some thoughts on the topic.
⚠️ This is a long post because I suggest we pull back on social issues comms—a potentially controversial stance—so I want to provide context for the point of view.
A note to non-U.S.-based readers: Most of the companies and political issues I reference are American, but the broader points apply to your experiences.
tl;dr: Everyone is tired of talking about politics at work, so we should stop making it a priority. There’s context and data to justify the decision. But politics and social issues can’t be totally ignored, so a framework can help manage when the time arises.
🙅♂️ Enough Is Enough
It’s time we took back comms. We must stop allowing socio-political events to hijack our days, energy, resources, and souls. Living and working in an always-on reactive mode is burning us out and causing many of us to flat out quit the industry. The quality and joy in our work are suffering.
What follows is a proposal to dramatically scale back comms about social issues and a framework to manage the instances where a reaction is warranted.
To make the case to your manager and to senior leaders, you need context, data, an alternative, and finally, a framework for when it is appropriate to respond (and who should do the communicating). Thus, this article is divided into several sections:
How We Got Here (a very short history)
Bursting Our Bubble (everyone is tired of politics at work)
Redraw the Lines (help leadership get out of reactive mode)
The Framework (a three-pronged approach for how and when to say something)
Without further ado, here are thoughts on how to respond to the (fading!) cry to say something about everything.
How We Got Here
We’ve been in this swirl for so long that we forget there was a time when Comms was succeeding without the weekly interruption of a social crisis. It’s useful to remember how we got here, so you can remind leadership that the company was doing just fine without having to always say something about everything.
Donald Trump was elected in November 2016. Comms has been in reactive mode ever since. Six unceasing years.
It was too easy to take a stance against President Trump. Coming out against his xenophobic, homophobic, and racist comments was a no-brainer and an easy win for any CEO and organization.
Writing for Fast Company in 2020, Nick Merrill and Dan Schwerin (cofounders of Evergreen Strategy Group) said that companies “taking a stand against a historically unpopular president and his most extreme policies has been a surefire way to win praise and demonstrate their values.”
The problem was that Trump said something incendiary every week. It (he) was relentless.
There was also constant upheaval around race, gender, and other issues that broadly affect society.
One week before Joe Biden was elected I wrote about what his presidency would mean for communications professionals. In short, I argued that Biden would make our jobs harder, not easier. Why?
A Biden White House is generally anti-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-climate science, and so forth. That is, Biden doesn’t generally take public stances that trigger visceral reactions from socially responsible corporate leaders, employees, and consumers—even if you disagree with his policy.
Yet employees and consumers are not content with a generally agreeable president. From the inside employees push their employers to take stances on specific policies, legislation, and Supreme Court cases. This is called “stakeholder capitalism.”
“Stakeholder capitalism,” say Merrill and Schwerin, means CEOs and organizations are faced with a three-part reality.
Under a Biden administration, companies don’t have Trump to kick around anymore, so they need to take bold, affirmative stands on specific policies and legislation to show their values. [my example: Levi Strauss & Co.]
CEOs who want to be seen as leaders have to use their market power to drive systemic change, such as convincing peer companies to modify processes that negatively affect the environment. [my example: BlackRock]
CEOs are expected to invest real political capital in the causes they claim to support, going so far as to endorse specific political candidates or sue the government for making moves that go against their corporate values. [my example: Patagonia]
In short, for four years (the Trump presidency) CEOs/organizations got used to saying something about everything all the time. When Biden got elected the compulsion to speak didn’t recede to pre-Trump times. Instead the catalyst shifted from Trump to policy and broader societal ills.
Since there is never an end to politics, Comms has paid the price.
(✨ By the way…I’ve been talking about all of this stuff ⬆️ for years. Paid subscribers get this kind of insight long before everyone else and would have been prepared, for example, to manage the recent SCOTUS/abortion decision. Just sayin’…)
Bursting Our Bubble
Employees and leaders are sick of talking about politics at work. It’s an unpopular statement because it seems like Comms only hears the opposite.
The demographics of white-collar professionals (educated, well-paid individuals) muddles things. Leadership falls into this group and so do most of our prominent stakeholders. In other words, we’re swayed by and often have to answer to this group, which is often different from our audience, especially if you work in manufacturing, retail, heavy industry, food services, and other sectors where most workers don’t sit in an office all day.
Most organizations are headquartered in cities, which exposes employees to diverse cultures, attitudes, politics, styles, and people in general. Urban areas are more liberal than rural, and so it follows that HQ will likely have a workforce that leans left.
Incidentally, all of this talk about talking about politics at work is moot when your workforce aligns ideologically with your customers. My guess is that Patagonia’s employees and customers are quite liberal while Smith & Wesson’s employees and customers lean conservative. In which case, carry on.
It gets tricky when the city-based white-collar professionals create a product that is in demand by everyone, regardless of political persuasion (e.g., Nike, Apple, Coca-Cola, Meta (Facebook), Southwest Airlines).
Comms lives in a bubble. It’s kind of like how journalists give outsized attention to media stories: because it’s what they know and love. Two of Comms’ biggest stakeholders are HR and Diversity & Inclusion, two cohorts that are constantly adjusting and reacting to socio-political dynamics. Thus Comms hears about the need to address social issues all of the time, because:
a) we celebrate (recognize) some sort of cultural moment nearly every month, and
b) some societal event has upset one or more vocal employees. (You know the saying, about how the squeaky wheel gets the grease.)
Because social issues are constantly top of mind for some of our most prominent and demanding stakeholders, social issues are top of our mind. And so it feels like we should be talking about politics every time the wind blows unfavorably.
Here’s the thing…
Employees are OK with talking less about politics at work.
The Integral Employee Activation Index, a survey of 2,000+ employees across the U.S. which came out in July, shows that the issues employees are most worried about relate to well-being and economic security. Concerns, as lead author Kari McLean, points out, “that employers can take action on.”
Health and wellness issues combined are a top concern for 59% of employees, followed by job creation (32%) and data privacy (23%).
I surmise that health and wellness issues are a major issue partly (mostly?) because divisive politics have crept into the workplace, leaving no “safe” space where employees can escape to get away from all the noise outside of work.
While all of the issues cited by Integral are political in nature (what isn’t?), notice that the obvious social issue in the table above — racial inequality — is lower on the list and, as a main concern, has dropped dramatically in one year.
Most CEOs are also sick of talking about politics at work.
A 2021 CNBC poll reveals:
workers at the highest levels of an organizational chart—the business owners, company presidents, and C-Suite leaders—are the least likely to say they approve of business leaders choosing to speak out on social and political issues in general. Just 52% of people in this group approve of business leaders speaking out in general while 46% disapprove, including 32% who say they “strongly disapprove.”
Those opinions were rendered last year when CEOs had a little more pressure to be vocal. (The smoke from the failed insurrection had not yet fully cleared the skies.)
As the pandemic drags on, flashpoints recede, and a recession threatens profits, it’s likely that CEOs are even less inclined to speak out on social issues. They want to get back to talking about business.
Finally, what employees say publicly may not align with how they feel privately.
Only 14% of Americans privately agree that CEOs should take public stances on controversial social issues, even though twice as many say that they support it publicly, according to a June 2022 study from Populace.
Even then, that’s only 28% who publicly make the claim. In other words, 72% of Americans are happy to say CEOs should step out of the socio-political limelight.
The view holds broadly across society. There is no demographic where a majority actually wants CEOs to take public stances on controversial issues.
What about those left-leaning, city-dwelling office workers? Assume that most of them align with the Democratic party:
Four times as many Democrats say CEOs should take a public stand on social issues (44%) than actually care (11%). In other words, even the lefties are giving CEOs permission to step out of the Twittersphere.
All of this isn’t to say that speaking out about social issues isn’t important. It is.
But it’s not that important. Employees mostly want to hear about how their business is doing. After all, mortgages, college tuitions, medical bills, retirement, and dream vacations are at stake.
Redraw the Lines
We can and should help leaders get out of this cycle because everyone wants out.
Employees are more worried about other issues.
CEOs don’t want to talk about politics.
Comms would rather move out of crisis/reactive mode and do the job we thought we loved.
I recommend taking the bold stance of letting your execs know that it’s OK to back off social issues. Nearly every CEO and most employees will breathe a sigh of relief.
Set the scene by reminding executives:
You cannot avoid talking about difficult issues at work.
Employees don’t stop being Black or Conservative or Immigrant or living in wildfire zones when they clock in.
But we don’t have to talk about everything all the time.
To avoid feeling like a comment needs to be made about every socio-political ill, double down and lean on your corporate values. Help redraw the line in the sand by letting employees know that the company will only make major statements on affairs that directly affect the organization’s mission. For example:
PepsiCo might narrow its focus to food and hunger issues
JPMorgan Chase could zero in on financial (in)security
Kimberly-Clark might lean into deforestation or climate change
Johnson & Johnson could pay attention to veterans’ issues (b/c the CEO is an Army veteran)
Once it is made clear that the company will only take a stand on major (high bar) issues or issues pertinent to the company’s goals, leadership must be ready to stand behind value stances and purpose statements.
Nuanced pressure will arise from inside. Stay strong.
Internal and External Comms are business-critical to ensuring the company’s internal messages reflect its external positions (value statements) and ensuring that employees know what any changes mean for the business and their paychecks, and what meaning the value stance brings to their work.
But…sometimes something so huge happens that it cannot be ignored, regardless of whether it directly affects the business (e.g., the murder of George Floyd, the overturning of Roe v. Wade).
When society erupts, let your leadership know that there is a plan 👇.
Regardless of how we got here and what leadership should do to fix the situation, we are where we are and we need to deal with it. What follows is a framework for determining:
a) which topic du jour requires a response (or none at all) and
b) who should sign the comms
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