Marathon Strategies

O’Dwyer’s PR News: Marathon’s Phil Singer’s Guidelines for Companies Taking a Social Stance

A coalition of some of the country’s largest companies recently called for expanding voting rights in Texas, where lawmakers are considering a controversial bill that would impose some of the strictest ballot limits in the nation. This call to action from companies representing a wide swath of U.S. businesses is the latest example of corporate America venturing into the thorny world of charged public policy issues—from Delta and Coca-Cola criticizing Georgia’s restrictive voting measure to Airbnb pledging to provide short-term housing for 100,000 displaced people and donating $4 million to the International Rescue Committee following former President Trump’s closure of America’s borders to refugees.

These events have been watershed moments that have advanced the trend of corporations taking positions on issues where they have traditionally been silent. Equally compelling is the question of when corporations should respond—if at all—to hot button issues. And the stakes are only getting higher: A recent Forrester survey found that more than a third of Americans say they’re more likely to trust brands when they take a stance, while 43 percent favor companies that take a stance on social, environmental and political issues.

So with more people expecting corporations and their leaders to go beyond just disclosing their financials, the question looms of when and how a company should speak out when the moral barometer demands it. Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” approach for companies to follow—something I’ve learned firsthand working on high-stakes crisis and public affairs challenges for some of the country’s largest corporations. But there are a few key principles that can act as guideposts when a corporation decides to take a stand on a polarizing issue.

Pick your battles

It is both impractical and impossible for companies to weigh in on every issue making headlines. Determining which ones to speak up about—and how to make those choices—is one of the most difficult recommendations a communications professional will make in today’s news environment. There will be times when there is a clear, inarguable moral reason to take a stand; in most cases, however, the choice is hazier. This is why companies must have an issues management matrix in place to decide what to weigh in on and when to do it.

Be consistent

As I’ve written before, consistency in substance, tone and timing is key. While a company should not be forced to respond to every issue that comes across its radar, it must be consistent when it does comment. Reaching consensus on all messages before they are distributed either internally or externally, designating point people for issues, and establishing a regular cadence of communication with the media as well as employees and stakeholders will help streamline the process and guarantee that the company’s message and values are clearly aligned and communicated the right way.

This will make it easier to succinctly get a statement out while demonstrating to customers, employees and investors that a company is not wavering or responding to whatever the zeitgeist at the time might be.

Partner up when possible

The old axiom that there is strength in numbers holds true in this instance. If a company can find partners to lend support to their statement—whether that be in the form of other businesses, nonprofits or even corporate rivals—it can add more robustness to the cause and a layer of protection.

Last summer, Microsoft, Unilever, Mercedes-Benz and several other multinational corporations announced they were working together to share resources, tactics and strategies aimed at speeding up the transition to net zero. While there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to meet their goal by 2025, and its success is by no means a guarantee, the project is a clear indication that there is power in numbers when it comes to affecting change on a global scale.

Keep in mind that if a corporation decides an issue is important enough to warrant comment, it will need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The backlash from empty statements can be worse than if a company remained silent. Just ask the companies who were accused of corporate virtue signaling during the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

A company’s internal commitment to change speaks much louder than any press release or tweet ever will. But having a game plan prepped for how to respond to an issue will at the very least streamline the process and make sure a company’s reputation remains intact regardless of what it chooses to do.