Social Issues And The C-Suite: Why Silence Isn’t Always Golden

Posted: Updated:

Our nation is politically divided and myriad channels exist for us to share our diversity of opinions online. As individuals, we use social media disclaimers like, "these thoughts are my own" or "my views don't speak for my employer." Then, we let our friends and followers know exactly what we think.

Corporate and non-profit leaders don't have that same luxury. They're more in the public eye and increasingly being asked to take positions on contentious issues at a time when speaking out might mean alienating numerous key stakeholders while delighting others.

These are challenging times and some leaders have observed the political minefields and decided to take a bunker mentality in hopes of riding out the storm. For decades, the practice of staying silent on social hot potatoes was a generally accepted path for companies and their CEOs to take. Today, the environment is different and when leaders stay silent on key issues, it can come with a price.

"What's changed most over the past year is that staying out of the fray now has a cost," said Duke University professor and CEO activism expert Aaron Chatterji in The Washington Post. "It's a choose-a-side mentality. The middle is harder to occupy. And with the proliferation of social media, it's kind of like a microphone that's always on. If you're not speaking out, it's more conspicuous."

With that as the backdrop, many of the corporate and non-profit leaders we work with feel that they’re damned if they speak out and damned if they don’t. And they’re right.

Facing that reality, how can leaders and organizations best prepare for what’s to come? The answer lies in approaching CEO activism with the same strategic rigor that goes into other areas of the business.

When organizations set out to launch a new product, service or strategic focus, they spend months – often years – analyzing what the market needs, talking to investors or donors, aligning with supportive stakeholders, developing plans for coming to market and more. This same rigor and diligence is needed when it comes to taking positions on major social and economic issues.

Unfortunately, leaders often don’t have the luxury of taking months to figure out whether to take a position on a social issue or not. That’s why organizations should engage in preparedness planning that allows them to:

Map out the various social and economic issues they may need to address;

Think through the potential risks and rewards of action (or inaction) based on their key audiences such as consumers, investors, donors, employees, etc.;

Prioritize the subjects and topics they want to be proactive, reactive or silent on;

Find other industry or community allies willing to stand with them in support of their position;

Draft strategic messages and statements for sharing with key audiences;

Continually monitor issues so that engagement plans can be updated in real time.

When leading these preparedness planning sessions, we encourage leaders to think strategically about who needs to be in the room. The intent is to ensure that a diversity of perspectives - political persuasion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, gender identity, religion and more - are represented. Yes, these planning dialogues can be challenging, but mistakes happen when leaders only invite those people who will tell them what they want to hear.

During this time of great national division and unrest, it’s easy to understand the temptation to go into the bunker and wait things out. Some leaders might think it’s just the big tech companies or employers with large millennial workforces that need to weigh in. But that’s not the case. Staying silent on the big issues of our time - even for the most traditional of American companies - can come with a price.

That's why now is the time to start asking, what does your organization stand for and how prepared are you to respond when asked for your point of view?

Mike Marker is senior partner at VOX Global.

  • Perspectives

    • (Image courtesy of Bedel Financial Consulting Inc.)

      Child Identity Theft: Are Your Children at Risk?

      Sounds absurd, doesn't it? However, young children are prime targets for identity theft. Experian estimates that one of every four children will fall victim to identity theft before age 18. How does this happen? More importantly, how can you prevent it from happening to your child? Untangling child identity theft can be time-consuming and costly. It could even require changing your child's first and middle name and obtaining a new Social Security number to clear his/her credit record...


  • Most Popular Stories

    • The Union Club Hotel was built in 1929. (photo courtesy of Purdue University)

      $30M Gift to Fund Purdue Hotel Renovation

      Purdue University says it plans to use a $30 million gift to transform an existing building into a world-class hotel. The gift from Bruce White, a Purdue alumnus and former trustee, his wife Beth, and the Dean and Barbara White Foundation, will fund the renovation of the Union Club Hotel, which will also serve as a laboratory learning environment for students. The university says the renovations will feature upgrades in furnishings, fixtures, and amenities for the hotel, as well as a...
    • Red Line Rapid Transit Project Progressing

      As construction continues on the high-profile, $96 million Red Line Rapid Transit Project in central Indiana, the director of public relations at IndyGo says ongoing, system-wide investments are already bearing fruit. The first phase of the Red Line will run between Broad Ripple and the University of Indianapolis and the public transportation organization says it will "serve as the frequent spine of the improved and reliable grid network." Lauren Day says ridership...

    • The trip marked Holcomb's seventh economic development trip as governor.

      Indiana Opens Italian Office

      As part of an economic development mission to Italy, Indiana has opened a business development office in Milan. During the three-day trip, members of the delegation also met with businesses in Italy's "Motor Valley" to promote collaboration with the state's automotive manufacturing and motorsports industries. During the trip, delegation members joined Italy-based filter manufacturer Filtrec S.p.A. for its announcement that it will invest $1.3 million into a Daleville...

    • Milhaus Details Purchase of Harrison College Indy Campus

      Indianapolis-based Milhaus says it plans to build a 183-unit apartment complex on a portion of the campus of recently-closed Harrison College. The development, construction and management company purchased the property last month for $6.3 million and Marketing Director Raven Reckley says the college's decision to close was "news to us." She adds Milhaus is "disappointed for the students and staff who are affected most" and will be evaluating...

    • Indiana Lands $21M in Opioid Treatment Funding

      Two Indiana agencies have received more than $21 million in federal funding. The grants will be used for opioid treatment services throughout the state. The grant was awarded through the HHS' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. FSSA Secretary Jennifer Walthall says the funds are "crucial as we continue bolstering our evidence-based prevention, treatment and recovery services, expand access to recovery housing and medication-assisted treatment, and work to...