Business Communicators Beware: CEOs Increasingly Are Expected to Comment on Social, Political Issues

Earlier this year I blogged with regard to a New York Times interview with McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski, calling attention to the discussion of corporate positioning on social and political issues. Interestingly, the Times has done a deeper dive on this subject in a Nov. 28 article headlined “Red Brands and Blue Brands: Is hyper-partisanship coming for corporate America?” It’s a worthwhile read, particularly for business communicators. If one hasn’t already established criteria and thresholds for when corporate leaders should speak out, it presents a strong argument for doing so. The article also makes it clear that oftentimes there will be consequences for the substance of a corporation’s position on any given issue. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes, and the article is appropriately cautionary. Kudos to reporter David Gelles for his work.

McDonald’s CEO Lays Out Solid Guidelines for Commenting on Hot-Button Issues

No doubt a lot of organizations these days are having to determine when and when not to speak out on social, political and other issues that gain prominence in the news. That’s setting aside for a moment the question of WHAT organizations might say publicly, if they decide to do so. In this past Sunday’s New York Times, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski did a pretty good job, I feel, of setting the boundaries for hot topics that McDonald’s will and won’t comment on. Asked “Where is the company on voting rights?”, Mr. Kempczinski’s reply included the following: “Is it either directly in our industry — which is an obvious one that we would comment on — or does it go specifically to the pillars that we’ve said are going to matter to us? So we’ve talked about jobs and opportunity. We’ve talked about helping communities in crisis. We’ve talked about planet. And we’ve talked about supporting local farmers and ranchers. Those are areas that we’ve said are specific to our business where we feel like we’ve got a role to play. If it’s outside of that, then there has to be a really good reason that us saying something can also be part of the solution.”

“Does it go specifically to the pillars that we’ve said are going to matter to us?”

— McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski

There’s more, but that’s the core of his answer. The interview doesn’t include a logical follow-up question, i.e., “Pillars aside, what do you do in instances where a portion of your workforce wants or expects the company to speak up?” From a messaging and reputation management standpoint, I believe this topic is going to get increasingly interesting as more and more young people who’ve grown up with social media and put their views on public display rise to the ranks of organizational leadership.

There are some good case studies and best-practice conversations to be had here, I’m sure.

You’re in a Political Candidate’s Crosshairs. Can You Respond?

Energy sector executives, government affairs representatives and communication leaders would be well advised to read this past Sunday’s business section article in The Washington Post headlined, “Trump, 2020 hopefuls are calling out U.S. firms.” It speaks to one of those sector-agnostic phenomena that is as relevant to one industry, and company, as the next. This phenomenon, as reported by The Post, centers on presidential candidates “directly challenging U.S. businesses in a way that historians and communication experts say underscores a new era.”

The practical takeaways relative to this development – which arguably is as applicable to state-level candidates as it is national ones – are twofold:

  1. It is essential to have at the ready a set of talking points that speak to the company’s mission and culture broadly, and other sets of talking points that speak to a company’s particular “hot button” issues and to major news developments that transcend different business sectors.
  2. It is useful as the election season intensifies to compile a record of relevant votes taken and/or statements made by political candidates relative to your company and industry.

With regard to talking points, it will be far easier to respond in real time to media inquiries and to craft appropriate tweets if one’s organization has kept current a general set of messages that align with its mission and brand. In this same vein, if the organization is siting or otherwise supporting development of an energy facility (think natural gas pipeline or wind farm, for example), one can anticipate that political candidates at one level or another are going to weigh in and necessitate something more than a “no comment.” The article in The Post includes good counsel from a communication expert who advises an organization that is attacked not to escalate the situation. Still, organizations fail to defend their reputation at their own peril.

Regular readers of The Washington Post witness a drumbeat of commentary criticizing Dominion Energy, much but not all of it from activists. If nothing else, the commentary is a barometer for impending criticism from political candidates. And beyond needing messages on issues unique to any given company, societal flash points like sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, privacy, corporate salaries and “Buy American” are all worthy of a customized set of messages in their own right.

With regard to politicians’ voting records and statements, a compilation has value as a common reference point within an organization and as a resource for external stakeholders. In the face of criticism from a political candidate, it would be useful to know what if any pattern that candidate has from a voting or advocacy standpoint.

Developing materials and a range of messages like this can be tedious, but the time invested will be well worth it if and when an inquiry or criticism comes that requires quick response.