Answer These Questions Before Taking a Public Position on Social Issues

There is no shortage of PR pros and pundits offering advice about how companies should respond to controversial social issues. Company executives ask whether or not to take a public position. If so, should they speak proactively or only in response to media inquiries? Or, should they discuss an issue internally only, with employees?

Historically, companies avoided public comment on controversial social issues. But today’s stakeholder demands more from companies.

The answer is not simply that this is a 50/50 problem. For example, if you speak out you might alienate half of your employees or customer base. Nor is it as easy as just keeping your mouth shut.

The decision whether to take a public position on a sensitive topic should be met with urgent, but careful, discernment and rooted in mission and values. The highest levels of the company, e.g., the board and C-Suite, should make the decision. Consider engaging PR experts, ethicists and other consultants, as well as a devil’s advocate, to provoke higher-level critical thinking and provide objective input into difficult questions.

While it is important to consider stakeholder positions and expectations, executives must proceed with caution. They should avoid allowing external forces from driving the timing or public release of commentary or policy positions.

  1. When trying to decide whether to comment on a social issue, consider:
  2. Has the company received inquiries from stakeholders or media about its stance or lack of it?
  3. Does the company want to respond? Why or why not?
  4. What does the company gain by taking a public position?
  5. What does the company lose?
  6. Doe your mission statement and core values align closely with one side of the issue?
  7. Does the issue intersect with the company’s products or services?
  8. Do you know how employees and other stakeholders feel about the issue?
  9. Does your position align or conflict with that of your employees and customers?
  10. Has the company, or its executives, taken a public stance on this issue previously?
  11. Do your actions align with your proposed stance on the issue?

Once the answers to these questions are considered exhaustively, then executives still must make a choice: to talk publicly or speak internally only. Of course, little or nothing remains solely internal anymore. Yet, even if the company’s decision is to remain silent on an issue, this exercise is invaluable to leadership. It helps build the capacity to make carefully considered, informed decisions on weighty social issues. Rest assured, there are more on the horizon in the highly divisive world we find ourselves in today.


- Deb Hileman, SCMP, is president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management.