PRSA Panelists: Before Commenting on Divisive Issues, Have a Clear Outcome in Mind

More and more, communications professionals are faced with situations that prompt discussion on if, when and how societal issues and current events, at home and abroad, should be addressed by their organizations. To help inform the decision-making process, PRSA recently added a section to the website providing an array of resources for member use.

“Our world is in a tumultuous place,” said Paul G. Omodt, APR, Fellow PRSA. “We are seeing all kinds of unrest — on college campuses, in the Middle East and in corporate boardrooms. Communicators are increasingly being asked to help sort this out and find the voice of their organizations.”

Omodt, owner of Omodt & Associates Critical Communications in Minneapolis, moderated PRSA’s Nov. 9 “Diverse Dialogues” webinar on purpose-driven communications. In today’s polarized social and political environment, the idea that “If you don’t say something, you’re saying something” seems to be holding true for companies and brands, Omodt said.

“The question that I ask my clients is, ‘Why do you feel compelled to say something?’” said panelist Helio Fred Garcia, executive director of the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership, and a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Often, Garcia’s clients think they need to speak out because they see other organizations taking public stances. “And that’s not a good reason to say something,” he said. Companies “have the opportunity to alienate everybody,” especially when speaking impulsively or based solely on one person’s preferences, he said.

With Israel’s war against Hamas, “We are finding that the various sides on this issue are far more vocal and far more active” than during past controversies, Garcia said. “There is increased incivility on campuses [and] in workplaces. How do you tamp down the incivility and prevent it from escalating into violence and destruction of property?”

Garcia’s firm urges clients “to resist the temptation to make statements based on personal preference and instead to ask, ‘What is the outcome we seek?’ If you can’t articulate a clear outcome, you’re not ready to communicate.”

“We’re seeing this very much right now with Israel and Hamas, where leaders’ personal views are clouding what the company should be doing,” said panelist Matt Kucharski, APR, president of Padilla, a communications-consulting firm in Minneapolis. In some cases, an organization can just acknowledge it understands that a particular issue is affecting people, he said. “That’s much different than taking a position on a controversial topic.”

A more sober era of speaking up?

Panelist Alison Taylor is executive director of Ethical Systems, an organization based at New York University, where she is also a professor at the Stern School of Business. The idea that not saying anything is itself a form of speech is “partly a reflection of how polarized we are in the U.S.,” she said. “We’ve got to be really careful about not fueling this polarization.”

In Taylor’s view, “there’s a very strong case for sticking to issues that are directly relevant to your business, but there’s also a strong case for putting employees first.” In the latter case, “you’ve got to be careful not to escalate internal conflict and create this silent, resentful minority” in your workforce.

A few years ago, leaders of organizations were expected to take positions on divisive issues, with the assumption that “‘if any of our stakeholders care about this, we need to say something because we can’t possibly be neutral,’” Taylor said. “We’re just now realizing how impossible that task really is [and the] unintended consequences it’s created. We’re leading into a much more sober, restrained and thoughtful era of speaking up.”

Companies also “need to take very seriously the bottom-up pressures from employees, very often employee-resource groups who feel it’s their role to organize and push leadership to take a position,” Taylor said. “And that is part of the problem, because you cannot be too knee-jerk in how you respond to that pressure.”

In Kucharski’s view, “it’s not a matter of: ‘Don’t communicate if you’re gonna tick someone off.’ It’s a matter of: ‘Are we OK ticking this group off?’ Because someone’s gonna be unhappy with you, no matter what. So be strategic on who that is.”

PRSA members can watch a playback of the session here.

[Photo credit: parradee]

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