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Taking a Stand: How and When Should Companies Speak Out on Political Issues?

From Margaret Steen, writing for Directors & Boards…

When the nation was riveted by protests over police killings, should companies have added their voices to the discussion? Should every company have an official and public position on sustainability?

Questions like these are arising with increasing frequency, as companies find themselves under pressure — from employees, customers and the community at large — to speak out on issues that some might consider political. To answer them, companies need to evaluate whether to respond to an issue, what form the response should take, and who should deliver it.

“Social issues and political issues often intersect, which is why these issues are complicated,” says Sara Brady, a specialist in crisis communications and reputation management.

Businesses have long advocated for positions on political issues directly related to their operations, taking stands on trade agreements or regulations that would affect their performance, for example. But, increasingly, some are making statements and taking actions on issues such as climate change, diversity and even the political polarization of society.

On climate change, for example, employees and customers are becoming more likely to demand action, and companies have also realized that it will have an impact on their business, even if that impact isn’t immediate.

“There’s no question that employees are much more interested than even five years ago in seeing their employer take meaningful public stands on what they perceive to be societal or social issues,” says Cheryl Fields Tyler, CEO of Blue Beyond Consulting.

One driver of this change may be a breakdown in trust in other institutions. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, which gauges trust in institutions, found that business was more trusted worldwide than government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or the media.

“Numerous studies show that employees want their companies to speak out on issues that matter,” says Valerie Di Maria, principal of the10company, a strategic marketing and communications firm. “The days when companies and CEOs remained silent on the controversial news of the day are basically over.”

Factors to consider when evaluating political speech

Most of the responsibility for decisions about communication on social or political issues rests with the CEO and the executive team.

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