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Founder of BAM, a full-service PR and marketing firm for VC-backed startups, and OnePitch, a pitch platform for journalists and publicists.
We see it daily in our news feeds — events like the murder of George Floyd to mass shootings to Myanmar’s military coup are inspiring calls for change, and they are being amplified like never before through viral videos and trending topics. This has given rise to consumers who expect companies to lead social change and CEOs to become corporate activists.
A remarkable 76% of those surveyed by Edelman said they want CEOs to take a stand on tough issues. Many employees also expect it — and when their CEO falls short, they’ll make their voices heard, publicly and loudly. A Weber Shandwick survey found that nearly 40% of employees have spoken out to either support or critique their employers’ responses to social issues.
Data aside, there’s no apolitical path for today’s CEO that won’t come without backfire and scrutiny. Coinbase founder and CEO Brian Armstrong hit a nerve when he proclaimed that the company would not engage in social activism. The company took heat in the press, and dozens of employees quit. Months later, Basecamp took a similar stance, saying it will no longer comment on political or social issues. At the time of this writing, the controversy is still going strong, and about a third of the company’s employees have quit.
This all paints a clear but complex picture. Staying silent about society’s pressing issues may not be the best option for today’s CEOs. But it’s impossible and impractical to speak up on every important news story. So when should a CEO say something? I created what I call the 3W framework — a practical rubric to help CEOs weigh their decisions on when to say something or not. The framework is built on three key questions, each with a score range of one to five points, with one point meaning “completely irrelevant” and five points meaning “absolutely relevant.”
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Where Is It Happening?
First, consider where the situation is happening. Is it in the city where your company is headquartered, clear across the nation or on the other side of the world? Proximity should earn more points.
For example, when Georgia Republicans passed a law that restricts voting access, a flood of companies cried foul, saying it will discourage voters of color. Delta — which is headquartered in Georgia and is its largest employer — issued a muted response but didn’t actually rebuke the law. That led to fierce backlash, including calls for a boycott and protests. The company quickly pivoted, with Delta CEO Ed Bastian saying he wanted to “make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.”
Using the 3W framework, Delta likely would have given this situation five points because it happened in its home state.
What Are Your Values And Mission?
Next, ask how the news aligns with your company’s bigger purpose. Keep in mind that there won’t always be an obvious link to your mission statement or company values as most are sweeping and broad, but take a critical eye to them. Case in point: When the U.S. Capitol was stormed by violent protesters, Disney apparently saw it as an affront to its core values and therefore wasted no time condemning the attack.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek called the riots an “egregious and inexcusable assault” on our democracy. He encouraged our society to unite under “our shared values, including decency, kindness, and respect for others.” Using the 3W framework, Disney likely would have given this situation four or five points.
Who Are Your People?
Lastly, think about how the news impacts your people. By “people,” I mean all of your current and potential customers, your employees, your investors and other stakeholders.
Consider how Nike responded to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who polarized the nation when he knelt during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice. Nike threw its support behind him, even tapping him for a major ad campaign.
Nike CEO Mark Parker said he’s “very proud” of that campaign, adding that it helped the company “connect and engage in a way that’s relevant and inspiring to the consumers that we’re here to serve.”
Supporting Kaepernick clearly made sense for Nike because the company exists for athletes like him, their millions of fans and the millions more who aspire to be like them.
Using the 3W framework, Nike likely would have given this topic a solid five points. A company that produces cereals and pastry dough, however, probably would give it one to two points, tops.
Tally Your Score
After you’ve worked through the questions, add up the score. At BAM, we suggest running the 3W framework by a handful of diverse leaders to gain an array of perspectives on where a particular issue lands.
If the issue earns four or fewer points total, don’t take a stand on the issue. If it earns five to nine points, consider issuing a statement. We recommend that you work with a PR agency or your in-house communications team to strategize your next steps. If the issue earns 10 or more points, prepare to make a comment and back it with a clear why and, ideally, action or steps. Again, work with your PR professionals to craft a timely response.
The 3W framework can serve as a critical, pragmatic gut check to help you move forward wisely and mindfully. In today’s cycle of constantly breaking news, the next pressing issue is only one refresh away.
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Author: Beck Bamberger, Forbes Councils Member