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Communicating Good Corporate Citizenship

in the Midst of Cultural Division

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Corporations and executives continue to face historic pressures to speak up about political and social issues, use their influence to inspire change and demonstrate their positive impact on a local and global scale.


Yet their audiences are highly polarized, both in America and around the world. There is no one definition of “positive corporate impact,” or one publicly-approved stance to take on nuanced international conflict or even the once-popular concepts of ESG, CSR and DEI. Earlier this week, Harvard University announced that it will refrain from taking official positions on public policy issues.


Leaders are facing enormous cultural lightning rods, along with the expectation to speak up without sounding performative.


The stakes today are high, and the scrutiny is sharp.


But when it comes to reaching audiences and communicating a mission through global tensions, cultural battles and political divisiveness, no one is more well-versed than David Demarest. David is a senior advisor here at Brian Communications, with a distinguished career that includes serving as White House Communications Director for former President George H.W. Bush, Executive Vice President at Bank of America, Executive Vice President for Global Corporate Relations at Visa International and Vice President of Public Affairs at Stanford University.


We asked David a few questions about what it looks like for brands to communicate their impact and values in today’s cultural context:


MB: When it comes to concepts like DEI or sustainability, how should brands respond to changing cultural sensitivities around those ideas, while staying true to their own values?


DD: The first thing an organization should do is to understand what those cultural sensitivities are, and how and why they may be changing. Then you need to assess how significant that shift is: Are these sensitivities changing incrementally, or substantially? The next step is to ask why cultural shifts (whether large or small) around concepts like DEI or sustainability should prompt a rethinking of an organization’s values. If a deep dive into the values is needed, then the company’s response should be informed by those discussions and stress tested across the organization’s key stakeholders.


The values piece you mention is so important, because audiences can tell when an initiative is truly authentic to the company. What would you say are the most effective ways to demonstrate — and communicate — good corporate citizenship in the midst of today’s corporate tensions?


Well, start by walking the walk of your organization’s values, not just talking the talk. It’s also critical that those values be meaningful constructs and not simply clichés. Cultural tensions often exist, at least in part, because there are fundamental disagreements about the underlying causes, the histories, the “fact” patterns. Demonstrating and communicating a company’s position in this environment is challenging, to say the least — especially in the midst of fast-moving situations or events that are emotionally charged. Leaders must recognize that there will be groups or individuals who will not be satisfied by the company’s communications, but that doesn’t mean the company should put its head in the sand and not even try to make a good-faith attempt.


Looking at the polarizing landscape, it’s easy to see why a company’s executives could be tempted to just not try to discuss nuanced issues.


Along those lines, let’s talk about the pressure that corporations and CEOs have faced in recent years to speak out on social and political happenings. It can seem like the choices to take a stance or stay quiet are equally negative. How should a CEO discern which responses would build the most trust with their key audiences, including board members and shareholders?


Empathy, empathy, empathy. Listen, listen, listen. And recognize that there are no strategies that will result in 100% acceptance.


After that, companies should test drive approaches with small groups of individuals across the political or issue spectrum. Then, identify hot spots and carefully avoid words that carry a lot of negative or loaded connotations.


When brands do choose to speak out on a political or cultural issue, what makes a statement feel genuine vs. performative?


Walking in another’s shoes will aid in speaking up with sensitivity and integrity. There is often blowback. Companies have to anticipate that and prepare for how that might occur. Leaders should look around at how others have responded and gauge whether they are successful or unsuccessful in managing tough situations.


And looking internally, how would you advise leaders to respond when employees speak out with a position contrary to the company statement? I’m thinking of a university setting — which you’re certainly familiar with — where a dean or professor has their own following and regularly shares their perspective on current events.


Universities are complicated entities. Unlike a business or an NGO, universities have internal constituencies, such as faculty and students, that are not bound by conventional restrictions. While only the administration of a university can speak “for” the university, students and faculty have great freedom to speak out on just about any issue — often in inflammatory ways. This can give the appearance of the university taking a stand, which is not necessarily the case.


Most universities do have conduct standards for faculty and student, but in a highly charged political arena those standards may be inadequate to address certain kinds of speech.


However, before saying that all speech is protected, or what kind of speech is prohibited, universities should look at how they dealt with controversial speech in the past and make sure they are being consistent in how they currently apply their speech standards.


David, you’ve had incredible experience helping leaders reach beyond political divisions to connect with key audiences. What can companies do to protect against misrepresentation when communicating a position that may be nuanced or not very popular?


It’s hard to generalize, as every situation has its own nuance and context. But you always need to repeat, repeat, and repeat some more. Stay consistent, and anticipate that not everyone is going to think you’re saying the right things. Take time to anticipate how you will — or should — respond to criticism.


As we’ve discussed, the heart of good corporate citizenship — and effective communications — always comes back to an organization’s values. What do you think are the values that Americans are most looking for brands to demonstrate today?


Authenticity, relevance, and empathy.


I couldn’t say it more concisely than that! Thanks for sharing your time and insights, David.

Need to get ahead of an issue? Let’s talk.
Need to get ahead of an issue? Let’s talk.

A trusted counselor, Matt has worked with C-suite executives in a variety of industries — healthcare, entertainment, higher education, non-profits — on issues including restructurings, mergers and acquisitions, leadership transitions, recalls, workforce reductions and many others.
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