Over the past several decades, corporate America settled on a common understanding that businesses must deliver more than shareholder value. Survey after survey has shown that executives, employees and customers are all aligned on the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR). In recent years, especially over the last two, businesses and particularly CEOs increasingly have felt pressured to take public positions on social issues.
To some extent, this is morally and ethically right. With power and profits comes responsibility. Somewhere along the way, however, in an attempt to appease stakeholders, companies stopped communicating about the most relevant values and started engaging in performative PR. CEOs and the brands they lead now go far beyond justifiably weighing in on the social causes that impact their respective businesses, commenting on every single issue or crisis du jour. But to what end?
In my career, I have led corporate communications and CSR teams for many consumer-facing brands; advising the leaders of Kraft Heinz, Walmart, Sprint, McDonald’s and now Grubhub on how and when to use their voice and the company brand to weigh in on myriad issues. A huge part of that process is being aware of and asking questions about the broader context – across the business, around the country, within specific communities and for individual consumers.
With power and profits comes responsibility.
There’s a laundry list of questions that might apply, including:
- How does this issue impact our business, employees and customers?
- Will taking a position/providing support (or staying silent) help/hurt the business?
- How do we effectively evaluate when and how to take action?
- If we decide to weigh in or provide support, how do we strike the right tone in our messaging?
- How do we ensure meaningful impact towards social change?
Most importantly, remember that just because a cause is culturally or politically relevant at the moment, does not mean that the business is required to take a position, especially as the U.S. remains at a polarized peak. As Blackrock CEO Larry Fink said in his 2022 letter to CEOs, “They [stakeholders] don’t want to hear us, as CEOs, opine on every issue of the day, but they do need to know where we stand on the societal issues intrinsic to our companies’ long-term success.”
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, business is now America’s most trusted institution. If so, corporate leaders must leverage that trust to help their employees (aka our citizens) learn how to listen and respect varying viewpoints, much as they do in the day-to-day operations of business.
None of this is easy, but if a company‘s values are understood and its actions reflect its values, even those who disagree will offer respect. For those leaders who try to have it both ways, and not be grounded by a core set of values, their actions will have negative consequences.