The state of whiplash created by the growing number of social issues that business, CEOs and employees are expected to lean in on has created a landscape that is getting harder to navigate. From racial injustice and sustainability to domestic and geopolitical issues and conflicts and, most recently, the leaked SCOTUS ruling on Roe v. Wade, the decision on what to say about these issues, where to say it and when is becoming a daily challenge for business and business leaders.
Communications, the proper framework, and adequate attention to diverse stakeholders can help yield positive outcomes and better business decisions for companies trying to operate within this dynamic. I was in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday and sat with Rob Rehg, a 30-year Edelman veteran and my co-pilot on the Penn State crisis a decade ago. Rob and our Issues team have developed a fascinating product, the Societal Issues Navigator, that helps Chief Communications Officers prioritize and manage the multitude of issues confronting business as it seeks to meet the new expectations of all stakeholders including consumers, employees, and investors.
The essential question for CCOs and their colleagues in the C-suite is to decide which issues should be discussed publicly and which should be only managed internally. The tool enables rapid consensus among the various constituent parts of the corporation, from investor relations to government relations to human resources to supply chain to communications.
There are a series of questions which probe meeting participants on the potential for impact on their business, how the issue aligns with corporate values, examines the expectations of key stakeholders, then looks at the degree of credibility the company has on the issue given its line of business and past behavior.
The diagnostic also inquires as to the readiness of the company to engage in a public debate. For example, has there been sufficient debate and input from internal stakeholders? Are the company’s policies at an industry-leading level or lagging the standard, therefore a risk?
On each issue, the tool recommends a communications protocol, from internal only to some form of external engagement all the way to taking a leadership position that coordinates and convenes other companies into a coalition. Then the tool gives a structured approach to communications, a framework of objectives for each stakeholder audience, a way to evaluate potential impact from speaking out, and a risk reward analysis of being first mover versus fast follower.
“No single answer applies to every organization on these issues,” Rob said. “Some find themselves in a better position to act as advocates for their own employees rather than engaging publicly, while others realize they should be leading the national conversation and driving change. The tool prompts needed conversations about important questions we should take into account when determining how to engage on issues. And it helps organizations determine what issues they should be acting decisively on so they can lead the way.”
This moment is now about Society in Business, a further evolution from the past five years of Business in Society. Companies are no longer in control of the agenda; they are being responsive to outrage and pressure. There has never been a more important time for CCOs to insist on a debate in the C-suite to resolve policy questions and communications protocol before the crisis emerges. It is indeed our time to lead.
Richard Edelman is CEO.