Reading the Room: (When) Businesses Should Comment on Sensitive Issues

In our ever-faster news cycle, hot-button topics dominate our media feeds, demanding our attention. Few businesses are outside the fray. Whether it's the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations around women’s reproductive rights, or geopolitical events like the Israel-Hamas conflict or the war in Ukraine, corporations and their communications teams often feel the pressure of a ticking clock as stakeholders await their official stance. The dilemma is knowing what to say and when—or whether silence is indeed golden.

Authenticity Is King

Here’s the secret sauce to effective corporate communication; authenticity is king—especially in times of turmoil. Translation? Companies should resist—at all cost—the temptation to align their messages and actions with that nebulous concept of “public perception.” Instead, they should consider the needs and expectations of a much broader range of stakeholders, primarily their employees and customers.

Authenticity here is about being loyal to what you stand for as a company and as a brand. It’s about fidelity to your vision and your values, your purpose and your character. And it’s about doing what you say you’ll do—what you promise you’ll do—rather than what people want you to do. Companies that hear—or fear—the baying mob and that do or say only what’s expected of them risk coming across as inauthentic.

Resist Riding the Bandwagon

Companies should also resist jumping on bandwagons because other brands are doing so. While a well-intentioned brand statement may be warranted, it can also be borne out of peer pressure. When business leaders see other brands making statements, they might fear that their silence will lead to a loss of respect from stakeholders or even impact the bottom line. But hastily joining the bandwagon can do more harm than good, if stakeholder values aren’t aligned.

Companies should instead reflect on their brand's existing values—that is, the very values that made the brand successful and trustworthy in the eyes of its stakeholders. The questions to ask are simple:

  • Are our employees, customers and other valued stakeholders impacted by the unfolding events?
  • Does commenting on or otherwise getting involved in the issue align with the brand's mission?
  • Is it something that employees and customers would expect? Or would it come as something of a surprise?

A notable example of a misalignment between a communications campaign and stakeholder expectations was Bud Light's collaboration with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. What was meant to be an inclusive partnership alienated a significant demographic of loyal fans, triggering a customer backlash and falling sales.

As political affiliation increasingly takes center stage, especially in the run-up to next November’s presidential election, brands shouldn’t overlook the impact of this and other demographics, such as age, gender and financial means. Understanding different stakeholders can help companies craft targeted messages that authentically align with stakeholders’ expectations of the brand, more so than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Embrace the Technological Revolution

The good news is that doing so has never been easier. A technological revolution is sweeping through communications. Innovative research tools and data-driven platforms can now help companies answer two key questions:

  • What does our target audience really think?
  • And what impact does our communications activity actually have?

Whatever the data indicates, a company’s response will be an informed one rather than one based on a gut feeling or what the Twitter mob is saying.

Amid seemingly daily sociopolitical outrages, communicators face immense pressure to prevent their company’s brand and reputation from being dragged into the melee. But rather than succumbing to pressure to issue knee-jerk statements, leaders and communicators would be wise to pause and consider what course of action aligns authentically with their brand—and, most importantly, what meets the expectations of their stakeholders and honors the promises their company has made.

Shahar Silbershatz is the CEO of Caliber, a Copenhagen-based stakeholder intelligence firm.