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The Perils of the Public Comment

Organizations sit in communities, and divisive things can happen in those communities. While those negative situations can have HUGE impacts on organizations, does it necessarily demand organizational leaders to respond publicly? Do leaders have a duty to talk about the community situation with their employees? With their clients? With their shareholders? With the public at large?

 

Customers, clients, shareholders can pressure leaders externally and demand that they take a stand on public issues. In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in 2020, polling reported in the LA Times revealed that 60% of those surveyed “would now boycott or buy from a brand based on its response to Floyd’s killing.” Staking out a public position was explicitly tied to trusting a company, regardless of its sector, industry, or product line.

 

Other times, the call for organizational leaders to weigh in comes from internal pressures. In early 2022, after Florida legislators passed the Parental Rights in Education Act (sometimes referred to by critics as the "Don’t Say Gay” bill), leaders at the Walt Disney Co. remained publicly silent, with the CEO saying only that he was trying to work quietly behind the scenes with lawmakers. As one of the biggest companies in Florida and a longtime champion of LGBTQ+ workplace equality, many employees thought the company should take a strong public position against the bill. They pressured leadership to take a stand by staging a very public, and long, walk out that hit the company where it hurt most: its revenues and reputation

 

 And, in some cases, leaders feel pressure from all sides, such as the situation in which Starbucks found itself at the end of 2023 amid the Israel-Hamas war. The company battled backlash on multiple fronts when a union that was working to organize some of the company’s baristas posted a message on social media that expressed “solidarity” with the Palestinian cause, leading to calls for a boycott of the company by some U.S. consumers. The post was followed by walkouts by some employees and led to vocal criticism of the company, its leaders, and their (presumed) support for Israel and its actions in response to the Hamas attacks. The negative press was immediate and resulted in a significant drop in share price and tarnishing of the company’s brand image.

 

In this particular case, Starbucks and its leaders were drawn into very public discussions of current socio-political events, but many, if not most, organizational leaders recognize that the traditional landscape of separating business concerns from the so-called “culture wars” has shifted dramatically in recent decades. The advent of social media is seen by many as the vehicle driving much of this change, as companies fight for customers’ and investors’ attention in a churning sea of competitors and distractors. Where a decade ago organizational leaders embraced social media, especially micro-blogging Twitter, as a way to expand their marketing reach quickly and cheaply, today they contend with the very real risk of significant backlash from the very audiences with whom they hope to connect.

 

The challenge is walking a tight rope that requires knowing when to say something, knowing what the “right” position is, and knowing how to state it in such a way as to avoid giving offense while allowing for enough room to maneuver if (when) the landscape changes.

 

The potential perils are very real for organizational leaders who make the wrong choices. For those who attempt to stay above the fray, they risk their consumers or other stakeholders believing they don’t care or are afraid to take a stand. Building a loyal customer base is critical for most organizations, so leaders are understandably concerned about avoiding actions that could alienate current and future customers.

 

At the same time, leaders are loath to experience the kind of backlash that has been visited on some of the biggest names in industry in recent years. In some cases, such as with Starbucks, it is the actions of members that are conflated with the company itself, putting additional pressure on leaders. In other cases, leaders who have been historically more deliberate in staking out positions are experiencing criticism and pushback from a range of stakeholders, including investors, communities, and, in the recent case of Disney, elected leaders. It is understandable that many organizational leaders are becoming less willing to wade into public issues even when the pressures are increasing. There are several reasons why leaders may feel they have no choice but to make public statements about today’s thorniest topics, including:

  • Stakeholder expectations

  • A desire not to “stick out” among competitors who have already taken a public position

  • A blurring of lines by the public between members (employees or leaders) of an organization and the organization itself

 

With this barrage of competing pressures, it’s understandable that organizational leaders can feel overwhelmed or stuck in a no-win situation. While we are not public relations specialists, we can offer a few common-sense considerations for leaders in any industry when facing such a dilemma:


Who are your primary stakeholders, and how important is the issue to their buying choices? Of course, customers and shareholders immediately come to mind, but they are certainly not a monolith. Identifying and understanding the “profiles” of your customer base are fundamental business capabilities full stop. But smart leaders know to look beyond simple numbers and demographic charts to develop a more well-rounded picture of who comprises your base and – most critically – what is important to them. As NYU professor Petra Moser wrote, “Many people today want to work for and buy from companies that share their values, especially those that are central to their identity. So sometimes companies may not have a choice but to take a stance.” Surveys and focus groups of existing customers isare an excellent tools for gauging what motivates choice, loyalty, and action by the broader group. A similar approach can be taken with shareholders or direct investors; savvy leaders make sure to remember the old adage about what happens when we assume…


How does a position on a particular issue align with the organization’s current strategies? What are the organization’s primary aims? Maximizing profitability? Broadening their share of the market? Boosting the brand? When considering whether to stake out a public position, leaders should consider whether that position conflicts with the organization’s stated mission, vision, or goals. For organizations that have previously highlighted their commitment to critical issues like addressing climate change, expanding DEI efforts, or improving sustainability, failing to take a position on controversial efforts that support them can undermine credibility with consumers. It’s also important to remember that not making a statement can be viewed by many as tacit support for a position that contradicts what they understand the organization’s purpose to be.


When should leaders seek the guidance of experts? Beyond the initial decision of whether to make a public statement or not lies consideration of the language, venue, and voice to use. In some cases, particularly when the level of controversy makes the stakes especially high, public relations or subject-matter professionals, or even legal advisors, can offer guidance in navigating the difficult terrain. Their contributions can be especially helpful when:

o   Leaders’ knowledge of the issue is limited, one-dimensional, or lacking in context

o   Leader or organizational bias is likely to influence decision-making

o   The situation is too fluid, and some flexibility may be required for future actions

 

In a 2023 article, the MIT Sloan Management Review concluded that, as risky as it can be, business leaders are likely to continue wading into the public sphere for some time. While there is some evidence that leaders are somewhat more reticent to do so in the face of so much backlash, demands from key stakeholder groups will continue to put pressure on organizations.


Therefore, the best piece of advice for leaders is to double-down on the organization’s values – when every member at every level knows and understands those values, they become a powerful rubric to measure whether, how, and to what degree to engage on the social and political issues that can dominate the organizational environment.

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