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Silence is Not an Option: Taking Corporate Values Public in Tempestuous Times

There’s been a surge in stories coming out of corporate America lately that run the gamut from awkward and regrettable to straight-up horrifying. Recent spectacular fails in customer service (and common sense) at Uber, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines have aimed the scorching spotlight of public outrage on the commercial transportation industry to cringe-inducing effect.

But there have been and always will be incidents in which gaffes happen—we’re human. All the planning and training in the world cannot anticipate such incidences or how they will unfold, especially when human emotion is involved, but such efforts can certainly equip employees to manage these situations more consciously.

Planning to put your best foot forward in a worst-case scenario takes more than a solid crisis response plan. It requires that the values of the organizational culture are clear, entrenched, and part of every aspect of how work gets done—to such a degree that even in the face of quickly escalating, emotionally charged incidences, the best way to respond is clear.

This starts with deciding what you stand for as an organization and how that gets communicated to your workforce and beyond. This should include considering how serious your company truly is about its stated values, and to take it one step further, if and under what circumstances your organization is inclined to respond to social or political issues or events as they relate to your stated corporate values.

What sort of risk is involved for companies that take their values externally and comment on things that are happening that may affect them directly, indirectly, or not at all? We’ve seen this play out recently with Pepsi’s ill-fated attempt at wading into social commentary by producing a music video-ish commercial that suggested offering a can of soda could defuse a confrontation painfully rooted in our nation’s history. The intent is clear: some companies do want to be part of the conversation and to take their values public—but in this politically-charged environment, there’s no way to please all your customers; figuring how and when to make statements that are meaningful and effective is a struggle. Most companies simply aren’t there yet.  

Members of i4cp’s Chief Diversity Officer Board recently fielded a pulse survey to gauge how companies approach upholding and living their D&I values, both internally and externally in times of controversy. The survey polled over 200 leaders, 72% of whom reported that their organizations include diversity and inclusion (D&I) as stated corporate values, but when it comes to leaders openly communicating a formal, vetted position in response to specific external events that are counter to stated D&I values (e.g., political rhetoric, social movements, troubling incidents, events), many (27%) told us that their organization’s leaders stay firmly mum.  

Only 10% reported that their leaders have directly made internal statements in response to such circumstances, and 11% said that their organizations directly address issues with comments both internally and publicly; 19% said that their leaders have indirectly reasserted the organization’s D&I value position internally.

This is understandable. But rightly or wrongly, employees are looking to their organizations to do better, to provide something different at work because the lines between work and the rest of our lives have intersected irretrievably. In some cases, the pressure from internal stakeholders can take a toll—consider the hundreds of Oracle employees who petitioned their leadership this year to take a public stand on immigration policy.

We may not be ready to tackle this, but in some cases, we may have to. Silence can do damage, according to the Harvard Business Review, which reported this past fall that how a company responds to controversy, including how quickly, is more important in driving public perception about the organization than what’s said about that company in the media (76%), by employees (76%), on the company’s website (68%), by spokespeople (61%), or in the company’s advertising (61%).

This is the view of Coca-Cola CEO, James Quincey, who says that companies absolutely must take a stand when it’s called for, even if doing so means angering some customers. This was no doubt the case when Coca-Cola issued a public statement in early 2017 that denounced the Trump administration’s executive order banning citizens of certain majority Muslim countries from travelling to the U.S.

Quincey has no regrets about that decision, he says, because to do otherwise would be to contradict Coca-Cola’s inclusive brand messaging. “A brand has to stand for something and you have to make the choices of what you want it to stand for, and then stand behind those choices,” says Quincey.

GE’s CEO, Jeff Immelt, took a stand against current climate change polices in an internal blog he wrote for GE workers, stating, “We believe climate change should be addressed on a global basis through multi-national agreements, such as the Paris Agreement." And he may feel moved to do so again in the future, depending on how things evolve.

With so much unexpected happening in the world, getting the message clear on where your organization stands from a values perspective will provide firm footing on which to stand (and from which to respond), no matter how tumultuous things become.

If your organization isn’t there yet, it starts with the leadership and a conversation. How do organizations get the conversation going? Here are a few suggestions from members of i4cp’s Chief Diversity Officer Board:

  • Create a discussion group that includes the CEO, CDO, CHRO, and communications leadership to discuss how to address such issues on an ongoing basis, starting with acknowledging that public statements can have equally far-reaching benefits or ramifications. Internal communications teams already draft and deploy crisis management plans, but considering messaging from a D&I perspective can help assure resonance that aligns with the business and is consistent with your brand.  
  • Devise a very clear procedure on how to make go / don’t-go decisions on both internal and external communications regarding your organization’s values in response to external crises or upheaval.
  • If others in your organization look to your team or function for guidance on how to communicate effectively during tumultuous times, put some serious thought into creating something that is authentic to your company’s culture—packaged/off-the-shelf generic messaging will not come off as genuine. Consider developing a tool to be used by a response team—a simple checklist of questions to help shape decision protocols can be helpful.
  • Work with select leaders on developing speaking skills for such events, to include coaching on how to make statements, how to incorporate their own stories when appropriate, and develop basic scripts for leaders to use and customize as needed. Conduct scenario planning and crisis simulations to help prepare designated speakers.  
  • Plan who will respond and how. Will you use your company’s internal social platform to communicate? Social media? Simply issue a press release?
  • There’s safety in numbers; consider forming alliances and issuing public statements in conjunction with other organizations that have presence in the communities in which you do business. This was the approach of nearly 100 companies (to include several i4cp member companies) in February of this year in filing a joint brief in protest of the previously cited executive order.
  • Above all, the focus of the messaging shouldn’t be self-serving (all about your company); it should be about the impact of the issue or event to the community in which your employees live and work, and how the company can offer support.

Lorrie Lykins is i4cp’s managing editor and director of research services

Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.