Nathaniel Heller, Vice President and Managing Director for Geneva Global, shares the four questions to ask before sharing a social impact statement. This article was first published Sept. 2, 2022, on Fast Company. Read Nathaniel’s insights below:
Of the many game-changing dynamics that 2020 brought to companies, the pressure from employees, customers, and partners to speak out on social and political issues brought novel complexity and stress to corporate leaders. Companies have never been completely immune to the broader political and social discourse, but the dislocation triggered by the 2020 racial justice protests and a society reeling from the effects of a pandemic centered these choices in a new and more acute way. “We just stick to our business” was no longer an acceptable answer to many employees or consumers, who instead looked to companies and their leaders to speak candidly and openly about their positions on the various debates of the day. In certain industries, especially technology and social media, companies themselves were the objects of debates, especially in the context of what roles they should or shouldn’t play in broader public policy controversies.
When To Speak Out
But what to say, when, and why? These may seem like easy questions to answer, but they surface complicated and multifaceted dilemmas that often present corporate leaders with thorny trade-offs. “It depends” is an honest and not entirely incorrect answer for most companies. But the precise cocktail of criteria used to arrive at decisions as to whether and when to speak out publicly can either bolster or undermine a company’s long-term social impact agenda, including employee engagement and retention. Companies that take a more intentional and systematic approach are the ones that are better able to navigate new controversies in a way that energizes their workforce, inspires their peers (and even competitors), and builds brand loyalty with customers.
A Public Statement Checklist
No single checklist works perfectly for every company, but most raise the following questions each time they begin to wrestle with whether and how to speak out publicly:
1. Does the issue affect our core business and/or our employees? It’s not surprising that many companies start here. There are, unfortunately, thousands of injustices happening every day around the world that absolutely merit a position. But speaking out thousands of times a day would undermine the efficacy of any corporate statement. Engaging on issues that are truly core to the business and its employees is a good starting point.
2. Is the issue historically significant? Many companies feel it is worth speaking out in situations where events seem like they are at an historic scale and where silence risks being perceived as callous. For U.S. companies in recent years, archetypical events would have included George Floyd’s murder, the pandemic, and the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. Companies based elsewhere will naturally have a slightly different list; those headquartered in Europe, for example, would likely list Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
3. Will our statement make a difference? The misleading answer here is “No, of course your company’s statement won’t change things!” This misconstrues the intended audience. Strategic and savvy corporate leaders know that their primary audiences are their employees, their suppliers, and their consumers, not the actors or individuals at the center of the controversy or crisis. Employees, suppliers, and consumers do derive value from hearing their leaders and partners speak out, and that translates to improved morale and retention, relational capital, and brand loyalty.
4. Can we walk the talk? Another key consideration is whether a company’s current practices match its public rhetoric. A large, renowned, global company I recently worked with was making laudable investments in racial justice organizations in the U.S. as part of its social impact agenda. But they were very reluctant to call too much attention to their giving. The reason? Their percentage of Black leadership team members was still in the single digits. While internal change management needs shouldn’t constrain a company’s willingness to invest in social impact programs, it may indeed inform how public they should be with those efforts, lest the company be accused of being hypocritical.
There are, of course, many other questions and criteria that high-performing companies use to evaluate whether and how to speak out on pressing issues in the public square. None of this is formulaic, either; trying to assign numeric weights and averages to these highly discretionary answers is a recipe for frustration. But using them as guideposts and guardrails can instill greater discipline, intentionality, and ultimately greater impact when companies decide to pick up the proverbial microphone.