Saturday, August 20, 2022

How should you speak out on difficult social issues?

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

Steve Cody is the founder and CEO of peppercomma strategic communications agency that was named PRWeek’s Best Places to Work in 2020.

Our country is faced with many divisive debates. In this environment, the question for business leaders is: should you and your brand speak out on social issues?

If you don’t know what your stakeholders want to hear from you, you’re not alone. Even experts offer different insights. According to a 2021 poll of voters from the Brunswick Group, only 36% believe “unequivocally” that companies should speak up about social issues. In addition, 61% say companies only talk about social issues to look good, not to effect change. On the other hand, according to a 2022 Sprout Social Survey71% of consumers believe it is important for brands to raise awareness of social issues and take a stand.

Given this conflicting data, what should a leader do? Here are three tips to help you decide if, when, and how to speak up.

Prepare yourself.

Here’s a tip from my 30 years of experience helping clients manage reputation crises. There is a direct correlation between how well a brand handles a difficult PR situation and how well prepared they were.

The same goes for speaking up about societal issues: you and your fellow leaders need to be ready to speak (or not) long before the issue erupts in public. It’s vital to build your team of in-house experts on a regular basis – I suggest quarterly – to map out which issues can arise in the short term and which make sense to respond to.

This team should include decision makers in communications, legal, operations, sales, customer service and human resources. The next step is to prepare statements explaining your brand’s position and have them pre-approved by attendees. Hint: you need slightly different messages for: each main audience. Now that these statements have been completed, you have primed the pump to communicate internally and externally when the time is right.

Don’t sleep on the sentiment of the public.

If you take the pump analogy further, if you want to speak wisely and authentically, you need a continuous flow of data and insights about what your stakeholders are saying and feeling about societal issues. This information will give you an idea of ​​the topics that concern them, which will tell you which ones to talk about. For example, if you own a supermarket chain, are your target audiences of customers, vendors, suppliers, employees and others arguing during midterm exams, or are they more focused on rising food costs?

When it comes to monitoring sentiment, there are a few essential must-haves. Keep in mind that when a topic is broken, it spreads almost instantly on the web and on social media. Another piece of advice I have is don’t think you have to follow the sentiment alone. Your team can spend all day reading social posts and content. But the volume is unmanageable.

I’ve seen many sentiment monitoring platforms you can choose from to track discussions on an ongoing basis. (Full disclosure: My company offers these types of solutions, as do others.) If this is an option you’re considering, look for one that allows you to search various social channels for mentions of your executives, your brand, and hot topics. Some tools may also allow you to enter search terms related to sentiment, both positive and negative.

Remember it takes a village to destroy your reputation.

Related to the point above, brands should track sentiment for: each main target audience and be prepared to reach out to them to avoid being caught off guard. During your internal planning meetings, be sure to identify all the groups that impact the success of your business. In my experience, 90% of leaders are missing at least one.

You would be amazed at how many leaders forget their employees. Recently I received a call from a client asking for advice because a corporate client was being called out in the media for a controversial political position. My client wasn’t sure what to say to his other clients to assure them that his company was politically neutral. When I asked if employees might be concerned about his client’s political stance, he paused and said he would be back.

A day later, he called to say his HR team was in need of talking points because employees asked if the company agreed with the policy of the customer, whose name was featured prominently on the brand’s website. I advised him to put together his team of in-house experts (see the first point above) and call me when everyone was on the line to discuss.

Given today’s tight labor market, your employees and applicants are perhaps your most important stakeholder groups. More than ever, people want to work for a company that shares their values.

Also, don’t forget investors, business partners, vendors, suppliers, and even non-profit organizations that support your brand. In your planning, establish a strategy about what each of these different audiences will need to hear from you (and how) if/when you take a stance.

Final Thoughts

Every brand is like a shark: it has to keep moving forward or die. As a leader, you must constantly keep your eyes and ears on the social and political zeitgeist so as not to embarrass yourself and your brand. Too many brands fail to constantly update and adapt what issues are most relevant to their business and their grassroots, so they can decide if and when to speak up at lightning speed. That’s the only way to avoid inflicting a huge self-inflicted wound that can easily be avoided. Business Council is the leading growth and networking organization for entrepreneurs and leaders. Am I eligible?

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