“Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace”

Most of us recognize those familiar words from marriage ceremonies we’ve witnessed over the years or even been a part of. That phrase more recently is one being taken up by community activists and directed at corporate leaders.

Until a few years ago, brands that took stands were viewed negatively and there was no upside. Although the jury’s out on many matters today, there is a noticeable change in the air.

What’s Changed?

For one, the Gen Z’ers are coming of age. Some, like Greta Thunberg, who recently was named Time Magazine Person of the Year for her stand on climate change, aren’t yet adults but are making a huge impression. Many won’t even consider working at companies whose values they don’t respect. Together with millennials, the two generations collectively make up more than half the U.S. population.

As a result of its research, Weber Shandwick said it found that 61% of Americans said CEOs run a risk in remaining silent. “Silence is no longer a good default,” said the firm’s Gaines-Ross.

Other companies like Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company, discovered that being an activist even increased their business. Besides being vocal on certain issues, Patagonia even took the federal government to court over plans to reduce the size of two national parks by two million acres.

On the other hand, Delta Airline, based in Atlanta, faced the threat of losing its exemption from Georgia’s fuel tax after it dropped its discount program for NRA members in the wake of the Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Topics to Consider

Recent generations recognize generic position statements and don’t look favorably on them. Any stand taken should align with the brand.

There are also issues that are less controversial than others. Of the 18 issues surveyed by Weber Shandwick, eight came in at over 50% favorability. In order from the top, they were job/skills training, equal pay, sexual harassment, data protection, healthcare coverage, maternity/paternal leave, gender equality, and free speech.

The remaining ten were race relations, globalization, climate change, AI, immigration/refugees, LGBT rights, gun control, nationalism, marijuana legalization, and abortion. Another important finding was that 35%of respondents boycotted or didn’t buy from a company on learning of a CEO’s position, while 18% bought more.

Moving Forward

Companies, especially those that are publicly traded, have many people to consider if they plan on taking stands on issues. It’s critical that they get buy-ins and have a comprehensive external and internal communications plan in place when they do decide to go public.

Separate focus groups and/or surveys of customers and employees can be very valuable in identifying topics that are important to them for consideration. Once topics are chosen, case statements and FAQs should be drafted. They can be helpful in gaining understanding of the company position and for future distribution. It’s important that employees also understand and support whatever position the company takes.

Consideration should also be given to potential allies. Are there community and/or nonprofit groups whose missions and values parallel those that the company is taking? Are there ways to collaborate?

Finally, when the company position is announced, the statement must come from the CEO and/or the board chair if the company is traded. It’s important that such an important stand be announced from the organization’s leader. If allies are involved, invite them and get their involvement, too.

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