No, Your Company Can't Avoid Politics. Here's Why.

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Can CEOs avoid taking a stand on social impact issues that are considered “political”? These days, that’s a tall order. We live in particularly divisive times, and many social issues across the spectrum have become tagged as political.

Once upon a time, much of Corporate America did everything possible to avoid taking a hard stand on social issues. Doing so only invited scrutiny and alienation - why go there? Today the answer to that question should seem obvious: no matter where your political allegiances may lie, ignoring the social and environmental issues of our time can leave business leaders burned.

In an article for Fast Company, writer Michael Grothaus posed this dilemma to crisis management and company image experts. Here were some of the reactions that Grothaus uncovered:

  • Companies (and their CEOs) must stand on principles, not politics. “Any response that a company or executive makes relating to current events should be grounded in the values that a company provides to society, and should be used as an opportunity to communicate those values to employees and customers,” Micho Spring, chair of Weber Shandwick’s Global Corporate Practice, told Grothaus. Company leaders should only respond if their values are directly related. But when they are, they must act fast, as 85% of global consumers say that how a company responds to issues and crises is an important factor in their opinion of the organization overall.

  • Think about your employees. Employees expect CEOs to look out for them, they want to work for values-based companies, and they expect their leaders to stand up for them based on principle. “Culture has become central to the ability of an organization to attract and retain employees and customers,” Spring noted. “Companies that are seen as being on the wrong side of social issues today run the risk more than ever of losing the war for talent and facing significant consumer backlash. Particularly in today’s environment, companies must put culture and values at the center of their risk mitigation strategies.”  

  • Prepare to get ahead of the curve. During these particularly contentious times, company leaders must expect the unexpected and plan accordingly. Don Baer, worldwide chair and CEO of Burson-Marsteller, told Grothaus that it all comes down to thinking ahead and having plans in place. “Early interaction combined with accurate and effective messages and smart uses of various communications channels can often diffuse a situation before it becomes a problem,” Baer notes.   

But despite the increasing evidence that silence can be its own loud statement, there are still plenty of corporate ostriches who would prefer to keep their heads in the sand, leaving CSR leaders, HR managers, and corporate activist employees frustrated.

How frustrated? Povaddo recently sought to find this out through a soon-to-be-released survey of attitudes across Corporate America about social engagement. Their fascinating findings should serve as a wake-up call for any CEO who thinks she can sit on the sidelines without alienating her employees.

For example:

  • Only 1 in 3 employees feel their CEO has his or her finger on the pulse of employee attitudes towards important societal issues

  • 57% of employees feel that Corporate America needs to play a more active role in addressing societal issues

  • 45% of employees feel that it’s more important to speak out on a social issue even if it has negative repercussions for the company

  • 27% want to put pressure on their CEO to be more public

  • 15% identify as dedicated activists

This means that a giant mass of your employees aren’t satisfied with how your leadership is stepping up to the important issues of our time. Those employees can be considered at risk of leaving for a company that has a more assertive and confident leadership style which better reflects their values and priorities.

Think about that for a moment. Could the prospect of a great deal of talent walking out the door change the equation for how your CEO evaluates social involvement?   

Lest CEOs tremble at the thought of wading into the “swamp” of social or environmental issues, Povaddo’s findings reveal that most headline issues of the day are actually far less controversial than one might think. Over 60% of social issues which were tested enjoy clear majority and bipartisan support from employees; this includes topics ranging from race relations and renewable energy to equal opportunity in the workplace and paid family leave.

How do employees want their CEO to voice public support for social issues? Povaddo uncovered several approaches as the most popular:

  • Introduce new company policies or operations to support the issue

  • Rally support amongst the company’s employees via internal communications

  • Make donations to groups aligned with the company’s positions

  • Make public statements via the press and social media

  • Oppose government policies that go against the company’s positions

  • Engage in issue-advertising or cause related marketing

  • Pursue litigation on issues and/or policies that go against the company’s positions

At a time when CEOs and other business leaders are being asked to be more empathetic and responsive - and forget about “playing it safe” since those days are long over - they desperately need an updated handbook for how to get in front of the curve of social issues. No matter where your beliefs may lie, Povaddo’s eye-opening research clearly demonstrates the clear benefit of action (and cost of inaction) for every business leader.

That’s why Causecast is pleased to join Povaddo in presenting a webinar  - on July 27th at 11am PT/ 2pm ET - that gives business leaders the information and tools they need to inspire corporate activist employees as enthusiastic stakeholders. Join us for an enlightening conversation about the important new data that you can use to empower your CSR team and stay competitive through social impact.

Ryan Scott