Q: How Should Organizations Decide On Which Social/Policy Issues To Get Engaged In Or Not?
Mixing Board Member Mashup
The Mixing Board Member Mashup provides answers from the Mixing Board community members on a variety of questions — be they deep, topical, tactical, strategic or career focused.
This one is meaty and covers a lot of ground that is increasingly asked in comms circles. The Q: “How should organizations decide on which social/policy issues to get engaged in or not?”
In the responses from Mixing Board members, we see a growing coalescence around thoughtful frameworks and approaches that, frankly, we’re not entirely well and widely considered before 2020.
Frameworks to Consider Emerging Issues
Cassi Gritzmacher (comms & social impact consultant)
Create a set of principles and an actionable framework. It’s so important to have these tools to lean on so that you can maintain clarity when you have to decide whether or not to weigh in – before you’re being pressured to.
I lean on 5 principles that I think any brand or individual can consider when deciding whether or not to speak publicly on an issue, including:
Greatest impact: Focus on the areas that relate directly to your mission and expertise to ensure you maximize your impact
Avoid brand dilution: You can't be everything to everyone, so be clear on where you'll put your stake in the ground, understanding that there are only a few things consumers can truly remember you for
Leave space for the experts: You aren't the expert on everything, so focus your (external / comms) efforts on speaking to topics that you know you can be truly additive to the conversation
Consistency, substantiated: True influence / impact is the result of consistent action vs. simply chiming in when a topic is newsworthy / trending
Efficiency: Having alignment and focus before it’s an emergency allows you to avoid internal spin and/or recreating the wheel, ensuring time is spent on execution vs. gaining approvals / pushing through red tape
Colin Crowell (former VP of global public policy & philanthropy at Twitter)
The ideal guidance one would love to be able to give would be to only offer comment when one thinks a company or CEO engagement can drive positive, concrete impact on the issue at hand, when essential human decency compels a comment, or when the welfare of employees is directly at stake.
However, beyond that ideal guidance, it’s clear that often companies or CEOs feel compelled to speak out or engage on a public policy issue because of employee interest in a topic. The general operating guidance then in my view is to try to establish ground rules and expectations about when the company/CEO may speak out and engage. In other words, what’s aligned with company interests and values, and by inference, what’s not. Giving employees a general sense of how this will all work is hugely helpful and can build trust. There will undoubtedly be close calls and novel issues that arise, but day-to-day it will be more manageable.
Priscilla Barolo (consultant and former head of comms at Zoom)
Important considerations include: does this issue impact our key stakeholders, does our leadership have a meaningful point-of-view (POV) on this, does it relate to our corporate brand/values/mission, are we taking any actions to back up our POV, are we prepared to stick it out if stakeholders push back on our POV? Also, note you have various options to consider if you do engage — internal vs. external, a single Tweet vs. an entire campaign, an executive vs. a corporate channel. Comms leaders should develop a framework in advance based on their company’s particulars and values so they’re not figuring this all out moment-to-moment.
Lindsay McKinley (director of communications at Samsara)
The first thing I'd ask is, does this directly affect our employee base, customer base, or other key stakeholders? If the answer is no, then there would need to be a very compelling reason to engage. Second I'd ask, if this does affect a stakeholder group, what do they need from us that they can't get otherwise? Talk is cheap as they say. If there is no tangible action you are going to take, you're just pretending to care and people see through that.
Jason Golz (founder of Highline Communications)
In a previous role, this was our general lens, which worked for us:
Does the matter affect our business or ESG focus?
Are we in the geography in question?
Can we move the needle on this topic
Will our constituents generally align now or over time?
Moving from Assessment to Action
Michael Kaye (director of brand & communications, OkCupid)
If a majority of your employees and key stakeholders (i.e. customers) care about the issue, you should be activating around it to build brand love and increase employee engagement and retention. OkCupid’s in-app questions about climate change and the environment have been answered about 15 million times so far, with it 97% of OkCupid respondents believing climate change is real and 81% of 7 million people on OkCupid being concerned about climate change. That's why OkCupid introduced a new product feature to further activate around this issue, called the Climate Change Advocate profile badge, which more than 550,000 people added to their profiles.
Lisa Stratton (VP of communications at Tinder and former Meta comms leader)
At Tinder and in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned, the team quickly formulated a response from the brand and the CEO. A majority of Tinder members are 18-25 year olds and research told us that they care deeply about reproductive rights, which made supporting this issue from a brand and leadership perspective an easy call.
This example differs from how we handled things at Facebook, which is a brand used by a wider variety of demographics globally. As we assessed which Cultural Moments to support, we had to look at 1) which moments drove the most engagement on the platforms (e.g., Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc.) vs. 2) which moments were the most important for the brand to take a stand on on behalf of the community (e.g., Pride, Black History Month, etc). Our strategy resulted in supporting and prioritizing a variety of both, with the latter taking priority in recent years.
The Internal Lens
I think it’s important to note that you can also have principles that guide external comms while being clear that they should not impede your ability to use sound judgment to assess whether internal comms might be appropriate – as an example, maybe you choose not to speak publicly to a tragic current event because it doesn’t meet your criteria of mission x expertise, but you choose to speak to it internally to acknowledge the impact it might be having on your team. This is where humanity comes in, and where your judgment cannot be entirely standardized.
On that front, I’d also recommend developing a Reactive Framework to help guide decision-making when the answer isn't 100% clear. Include an internal task force (and consider leveraging external experts if appropriate / helpful) and a series of qualifying questions to assess the situation in real-time.
There should be robust internal communications about the external communications plans, as well as outreach to internal BRGs about when and how the company will communicate on pressing public policy issues or breaking news events.
What to Watch Out for
Louise Conroy-Callagy (senior comms/marketing consultant)
I was working on one project, and we had a big crypto ‘partnership’ announcement. The backlash from employees was really intense when it was pre-announced at a company all hands meeting, due to the perceived and documented impact of Web 3.0 on the environment. Leadership did not pay attention to/take it seriously despite multiple slack comments/live QA, and then on announcement the brand’s community was just as shocked. Climate change and sustainability was not something the company had discussed/thought about having a position on, and in the end, much pain could have been avoided if a pre-conversation happened with business development, as the truth was it was actually just an integration rather than a revenue sharing partnership. The brand took a dent in the short term, but all could have been avoided by a conversation on where the company stood and what that meant on the trade offs.
Justin Dorff (head of communications at Confluent)
If the issue that you’re being asked to participate in doesn’t match your stated values or you don't have a top executive willing to publicly support the issue with their authentic views, tread carefully! You may be setting yourself up for inauthentic comms that angers all audiences, even those you are trying to support.
Second, think deeply if the actions you’re taking will truly have a positive impact on the issue at hand. Are you doing something because you feel pressure from other brands and/or executives getting involved? If you’re only getting involved because everyone else is, your actions can be interpreted as performative lip service.
Role of Corporate Philanthropy
A strong starting place for most companies is to develop focus areas around its corporate philanthropy interests. Ideally, adopt these CSR priorities wIth employee buy-in and participation. For example, employees could help to choose two or three core focus areas that the company will focus on for CSR purposes. These could be climate change, civil rights, and homelessness for example. But again, make sure the company doesn’t just pay lip service to these CSR focus areas but actually does something concrete in them — such as partnerships, financial grants, employee matching contributions, in-house event convenings, and volunteerism. These CSR areas then could be one guide for expectations of when the company/CEO speaks out. For these affirmatively-chosen CSR issues, commenting publicly could occur not only when major news breaks about these topics, but also proactively and opportunistically to reinforce brand image and CSR goals.
Listening for New Issues
Have an honest conversation/regular agenda item on meetings with leadership about what issues they (and their ecosystem, especially customers/employees/partners) do truly care about, and whether/not they can do something that indicates action and commitment.
Christine Choi (partner, M13)
Public engagement starts with internal engagement, and my approach has been to read the room and seek ways to express greater connection and affinity among the team.
Priscilla Barolo recently wrote a comprehensive and excellent blog post on this very topic.
Louise Conroy-Callagy is big fan of the MIT Study on Employee Activism, where companies can first assess where they are on the scale of social activism.
Eleanor Hawkins (communications strategist and writer at Axios) shared this fantastic decision tree chart last summer:
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