C-Suite Advisory

Business and Politics: Deciding Whether to Speak Out and What to Say

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Companies face an increasing amount of pressure to speak out on social issues that matter to their customers. Although some leaders are reticent to tackle potentially touchy subjects, saying nothing is still saying something. Here are a few pointers to help you know when it’s the right time to speak out.

With the rise of social media and the power it gives to individual voices, U.S. corporations face growing pressure to use their vast influence to speak out on social issues — or potentially face bad press and even boycotts of products and services. While some leaders and companies have more or less of an appetite for social activism, most will likely face pressure to respond to major social issues at some point.

When tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open due to mental health concerns, the spotlight quickly swung to how her corporate sponsors would react. Nike and other sponsors quickly responded and publicly voiced their support for her choice to step away and take care of herself. Between the lines of that response was the intent of communicating their support for mental health issues overall.

Conversely, the lawmakers in Georgia recently passed legislation widely viewed as restricting voting, particularly for people of color. In response, Major League Baseball announced it would no longer hold the 2021 All-Star Game in Atlanta; Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola — two of Georgia’s largest corporations — didn’t immediately come out against the law despite tremendous pressure to do so.

As leaders determine their responses to pressing situations like these in the future, here are a few key things to keep in mind.

Internet Immortality

Boycotts might be temporary and even weatherable, but the internet means PR stories — both good and bad — can live forever. Accordingly, the potential financial impact of speaking out might not even be your primary consideration when you’re making your decision.

If your company produces and sells, say, commercial gasses used in manufacturing processes, your brand probably isn’t dependent on public sentiment. In this scenario, the decision to speak out would likely not impact the bottom line or your company’s reputation in the long run. But if your company sells snack foods, how people “feel” about your brand can have a tremendous impact.

The more your brand depends on public goodwill, the more likely it is that you’ll be compelled to at least make a public statement — even if your company doesn’t generally have a taste for social advocacy.

Content and Tone

Don’t be overly surprised if your organization’s response to a particular social issue is not as “strong” or “direct” as some might desire. Even leaders and corporations with strong social justice advocacy tendencies have to balance those tendencies with the future and their bottom lines.

Leaders often work with diversity professionals to craft statements that avoid permanent damage to relationships with certain groups but still show their commitment to change. Speaking out can potentially upset business partners, but not speaking out can upset public stakeholders — it can feel like a trap. While advocacy might not always be easy to navigate, it is important and always requires a full evaluation of potential consequences.

Actions vs. Words

Words alone no longer cut the mustard. Social advocates are increasingly looking for actions that back up a company’s promises. While diversity professionals are integral in making these decisions, the “secret sauce” here is clearly tying your actions to your words. You’ll want to explain (even if it seems obvious) why your company is doing X, Y, or Z and how that supports your position or what you hope to achieve.

If you can’t settle on a suitable action to accompany a public statement, consider saying so. Let people know that this is at least a concern, even if the company ultimately concluded there is no subsequent action it can take to further the cause.

Don’t Overpromise

This should probably go without saying, but if you do decide to respond to the social issue of the moment, be sure not to overpromise and then underdeliver. The internet loves collecting “receipts,” and people love a good follow-up story about how Company X or Leader X pledged to do something and then quietly failed to deliver. Don’t let the goodwill generated from your initial response go to waste.

While you’re at it, do not commit to breaking the law. In response to social justice issues regarding people of color and trans people, several major organizations have committed to doing things such as intentionally increasing the hiring of trans folks or people of color. The sentiment is great, but that is extremely difficult to do under current federal law.

There is a high bar to clear before any company can take employment action specifically based on a person’s protected characteristics; an employer would have to show a significant, deeply entrenched organizational problem with illegal discrimination, show that other efforts have been made to remedy the issue, choose the approach that violates the law least, and then implement it for the shortest possible amount of time. Most organizations never clear the first hurdle because of how deeply admitting to discriminatory practices would hurt their reputation and credibility. In the end, most choose to follow the slower, more methodical process envisioned by the law.

Written by Matt Nusbaum.

Matt Nusbaum
Matt Nusbaum is the director of the BCG Institute for Workforce Development (BCGi). Matt has more than nine years of experience as a practicing attorney and is one of the nation’s leading authorities on affirmative action. He consults federal contractor employers on affirmative action and nondiscrimination requirements enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor, and also those required by federal, state, and local enforcement agencies.


Matt Nusbaum is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.