To Speak or Not to Speak on Hot-Button Issues
By Sheri Sesay-Tuffour, PhD, CAE
Not so long ago, nonprofits, like other businesses, focused primarily on driving strategy, ensuring organizational growth and success, and providing value to their stakeholders. Weighing in on social or political issues were not priorities on their agenda.
Times have changed. In today’s purpose-driven business landscape, organizations and their leaders are under pressure to speak out on high profile social, political, economic and moral issues — whether it is related to their mission or not. Some leaders have taken a decisive position in speaking out on matters of interest. Stakeholders including members, credential holders, customers, grantors, sponsors, advocates and the public at large are demanding greater transparency and authenticity on where organizations stand and how they are creating positive change on big-picture issues. This includes everything from racial inequality and immigration, to gender discrimination and climate change, among others. The quandary challenging associations is whether to speak or not to speak on an issue, particularly if it is contentious.
Associations should recognize that taking a public stance on controversial and sensitive topics poses both risks and opportunities. Saying the wrong thing can lead to public backlash. Remaining silent can give the impression that an organization does not care enough to acknowledge an injustice.
Keep in mind though that the option to remain silent may also be tied to an organization's IRS tax-exempt status, which may be relevant to public commentary. While there are professional associations and certification boards who hold 501(c)(6) status, an equal number hold 501(c)(3) status. The latter exemption status places more limits on political activity. Although most of the restrictions pertain to campaign-related activity, speech deemed by some to be political in nature could be problematic for an organization, especially if it has strong adversaries. On the opportunity spectrum, taking a stand can influence the organization’s reputation as an agent of change. All choices have consequences.
So, how and when does an organization decide to speak up and act in support of a hot button issue?
Is the Silence in Your Organization Still Golden?
While sharing the organization’s perspectives or acting on issues that are not directly related to the organization’s mission represents a new set of circumstances, organizations must see the future and act, and build new capabilities to steward their companies in the right direction, driven by the right strategy and purpose. Even if your association has not yet been asked to speak out on a potentially controversial topic, the likelihood is you may need to make this decision in the future. One thing is certain: The heat is rising — and for some organizations, continuing to remain silent on high profile issues may not be the best option.
Think Before You Speak
Consider taking a principles-based approach. Rather than giving into peer pressure to respond to the issue of the moment, overanalyzing to the point it stifles decision-making, or remaining silent because no protocols or processes are in place, organizations can make their decision on how to act based on what issues align with their mission and core values. A principles-based decision-making framework for addressing public issues allows an organization to communicate to stakeholders why they are choosing to speak out or why they are staying silent on a particular issue.
While organizations may face pressure to speak out on every contentious issue, that level of engagement would likely not be practical nor productive. In some cases, there is an obvious moral imperative to take a stand. Other times, it may not be so clear.
If your association chooses to speak out, how should it prepare and position its response? Should your association take the lead in driving the conversation, or should it partner with other organizations to demonstrate solidarity on the issue? Consider the following questions:
- Does the issue align with your mission, values and culture?
Your organization’s purpose is its north star. When your decisions and words align with your organization’s mission and values, they will have an impact. If your audience determines that your response is not aligned with your mission and strategic direction, you risk losing members, staff, partners and/or being “cancelled.”
How can you meaningfully influence the issue?
Before you decide on whether to speak or remain silent, ask yourself if your organization has the expertise and resources to make a difference. Utilize evidence-based findings to authentically contribute to an issue. Pay attention to what similar organizations, local or state sources, and national entities are saying on the matter. Determine what your added value is to the conversation. Words must be backed by actions.
Are stakeholders aligned with your intent to speak out and with your message?
Almost two-thirds of employees say companies should take a public stand on issues, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer in which 36,000 people in 28 countries were surveyed. The study showed that anytime a business leader speaks out they risk driving away staff who disagree with them politically. Before you make any decisions to speak out or remain silent, check in with your internal staff. While it is impossible to get buy-in and support from all members of your staff, you will have a good understanding of where you stand. Do likewise with other key stakeholders to minimize any potential fallout. Consider a quick one to two question pulse survey to get a read on where your members and other stakeholders stand on a particular issue.
What are the potential risks to your business or the impact on employees?
If the organization’s purpose for speaking out doesn’t clearly outweigh the dangers, then it may be wise to consider a different course of action. Reach out to partner organizations to gain their experience and perspective. Consider responding as part of an industry coalition of concerned organizations if it minimizes the individual risk.
The answers to these questions can inform your decision on the appropriateness of speaking out and your level of exposure. As with all decisions impacting the health of the organization, the board of directors must be fully engaged in the strategic aspects of considering a response. In a public statement that could lead to media coverage or scrutiny, the board should never be surprised or unaware of actions taken by the association.
As the demand to speak out on politically driven social issues heightens, CEOs and their boards will need to strengthen their focus of the organization’s social purpose strategy or establish new policies if none are in place. Having a process that has been vetted and blessed by the board allows management to make better decisions about when to speak out on hot-button issues.
Think Strategically. Stand Ready to Speak Out.
Reflect on your organization’s mission and core values and consider the viewpoints of your stakeholders to determine where proactive social engagement and leadership makes strategic sense. Speaking out on societal issues can raise positive awareness of your organization under the right circumstances.
Monitor and research hot-button issues in the news, homing in on the ones that are most likely to align with your mission and purpose. While controversial news events cannot be predicted, the underlying issues — from racism, to gun violence, to health care — are often long simmering. Get behind an issue without creating controversy. For example, rather than addressing the specifics of pro-life or pro-choice, comment on the importance of women’s health care.
Organizations can and should discuss in advance the issues they have a stance on and draft a position statement. At the same time, consider topics or events that you feel your organization could potentially be called upon to react. Establish a team that includes representatives from marketing, communications, strategy development and legal to develop this list. Research what other organizations or individuals have stated on a given topic and what the outcome has been. Keep in mind that statements that come across as virtue signaling, woke-washing or pursuing financial gain will be criticized as inauthentic and offensive. Develop responses to questions that will help you determine if you have something to say. For example:
- Who is the target audience?
- How does the issue align with the mission of the organization?
- What is the goal of the message?
- Who might be alienated with this message?
- What could the repercussions be if the message goes over badly?
- Is the organization ready to consistently support this issue in the long term?
- Will a statement conflict with any legal, regulatory or compliance requirements?
Hot-button issues will not take a back seat. Associations and their leaders will continue to find themselves in a quandary of whether to speak or not to speak. While not every social or political issue warrants an organization’s acknowledgment, for issues that may strike a reaction, organizations should examine the merit of a possible response and how stakeholders might react. Depending on the issue and the responses to the guiding questions in this article, leaders must strike a careful balance and determine how best to preserve their organization’s reputation.