When should CEOs weigh in on social issues?

The days of CEOs only being asked for comments on their company's status are gone. The combination of a 24/7 news cycle, social media, and the interconnectedness of global economies means that corporate leaders everywhere are not only impacted by social issues but also expected to weigh in with insights and opinions whenever a major (and often controversial) event occurs.

Some leaders may wonder when it’s appropriate to speak on behalf of their entire organization or how to balance personal opinion with company values when crafting a statement. Other corporate leaders might wonder why they must comment, especially if what happened doesn’t directly affect their day-to-day operations.

People will continue turning to CEOs for public statements amid national and international events, so creating a plan for when and how to comment is essential.

The Public Wants Leaders to Speak Out

CEOs and other corporate leaders used to lead relatively anonymous lives if they chose to. Social media and the ability to quickly research companies online changed that. Consumers and employees alike want to know that the brands they trust share their beliefs — and if they don’t, people want to know that, too. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer showed:

  • 60% of people choose a workplace based on their beliefs and values.
  • 81% “believe CEOs should be personally visible when discussing public policy with external stakeholders or the work their company has done to benefit society.”

Today’s leaders understand the current expectations from employees and consumers, which is likely why 70% of CHROs said they’ll continue making public statements on social issues and significant events as they do now. The challenge that remains, though, is crafting a statement that achieves the right balance of personal, professional, and public opinion.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Public Statements

CEOs are accustomed to directing the course of their companies, but important decisions are often made after considering feedback from relevant stakeholders. Speaking out on social issues as the face of an organization requires leaders to think about stakeholders, too. Employees, advisors, investors, and current customers won’t all share the same views. Before making a statement, CEOs must weigh the risks and benefits of potentially alienating any key groups.

Employees, in particular, are paying more attention to how leaders respond in times of social unrest. Adam Nash, CEO of Daffy, recently said in an interview with CEO.com, “I think it's a mistake for leaders to ever forget that a company’s value is sourced from the people. If you look at the spreadsheets and the numbers and the margins, et cetera, it’s easy to think that that's where the value gets created, but it’s actually the people and the team.”

Millennials, who comprise the largest percentage of today’s workforce, favor CEOs engaging in politics; 51% of millennials even said they make job decisions based on social and political views. However, just as one leader doesn’t represent the thoughts of an entire organization, neither does one sector of the workforce, which is why leaders must rely on some criteria to determine the next best step. Using a predetermined framework can make assessing the pros and cons of making a public statement easier.

Who Do CEOs Speak For?

Although social issues are often complex, the strategy for deciding whether or not to comment doesn’t have to be. Leaders can’t expect to consider each stakeholder’s opinion, but they should assemble a team that can reliably speak for the most significant relevant audience. At a minimum, this team should include the CEO, CHRO, and head of communications, though an advisory board could also be consulted.

A basic set of criteria can help each party think through similar points before deciding whether or not to comment publicly. These three questions offer a good starting point:

  • Does the issue align with the company's strategy, mission, and values?
  • Can the company meaningfully impact the issue with expertise or appropriate resources?
  • Will most of your stakeholders agree to speak out?

The questions and criteria may evolve as your organization becomes more adept at evaluating and responding to social issues. Still, the main goal is to have a plan in the first place. Economic, international, and political issues will continue to generate unrest, opinions, and movements. Businesses must prepare to respond when the time is right.

Written by

Megan Snyder
Megan Snyder

Senior Editor | CEO.com

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