Trewstar Corporate Board Services

To Speak or Not To Speak

April 23, 2024

April 23, 2024   
 
To Speak or Not to Speak: That is the Question

Dear Friends of Trewstar:
 
Watching clips of Columbia University President Minouche Shafik’s grilling at the recent Congressional hearing made me think about the high stakes decisions today’s corporate leaders face when deciding if and how to speak publicly about current events.

Given the potential consequences, corporate boards need to be involved in these decisions with their CEOs. They also need a framework for weighing the possible outcomes, which is why I turned to Paul Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Paul consults with many CEOs and boards, and published a framework for decision-making in a 2020 Harvard Business Review article titled “When Should Your Company Speak Up About a Social Issue?

Paul told us that despite the enormous downside of speaking out, there is more pressure than ever on companies to do so, and not just from employees. Activist investors want answers, too.

“The issues have become more difficult to respond to,” Paul adds. “Black Lives Matter and #MeToo were easy ones in retrospect. Abortion and war in the Middle East are much harder.”

Paul recognizes how tough it is to get it right given today’s politically divided landscape. “Wokeness has become a flashpoint,” he says. “Corporations face criticism from the far right for being too woke and the far left for not being woke enough.”

Against this backdrop, this is Paul’s decision framework in a nutshell:

  1. Does the issue align with your company’s strategy? If not, you are straying into territory you do not fully understand.

  2. Can you meaningfully influence the issue? Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is? If not, you risk charges of hypocrisy and wokeness.

  3. Will enough of your constituencies agree with what you might say or do to take the risk? 

Paul provides these guidelines to CEOs and their boards as they weigh the responses:

  • If the answer is YES to all three questions, your company and CEO have an opportunity to speak out as a leader.

  • If the answer is NO to all three questions, not speaking out is the best choice.

  • If there are two NOs, Paul suggests you monitor the situation but not speak out.

  • If the answer is YES to two of the three questions, there are several courses of action. You could let other corporations take the lead and see what happens. Or, you might circulate an internal memo expressing concern for your employees and explaining actions being taken.

Paul says he is continually struck by how poorly prepared many companies are to confront social issues despite their prevalence. “If you haven’t spent time considering the possible responses to a range of tricky situations before they become headline news, you are going to find it difficult to come up with an acceptable plan at the last minute.”


To end on a positive note, we want to share snippets of an uplifting conversation we had this week with Cognizant CEO Ravi Kumar. “With trust in institutions at an all-time low, there is no better time to demonstrate purpose and show empathy,” he says. With respect to healing our divided society, Ravi states, “The middle has never been more important.” We wholeheartedly agree!

 

Best Regards,

 

 

 

P.S. There are many articles on this topic. We found the range of issues covered in this recent WSJ article to be particularly helpful.

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