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CEOs Face Communications Tightrope This Fall

September 24, 2020
By Diane Poelker

As the global pandemic enters its seventh month, the economic uncertainty and social unrest has put businesses and their leaders in a precarious position. From employees to business partners to investors, CEOs face mounting and divergent expectations on how and whether to address topics at the intersection of business management and societal priorities.

A June 2020 survey by Morning Consult found 71% opinion leaders and consumers believe CEOs should use their power and influence to demand action from government entities who have the power to enact systemic change. A shocking statistic for those who more closely subscribe to the view that profits are the paramount indicator of business health. Yet Morning Consult found these feelings went beyond CEOs’ role within their institutions: 70% of those surveyed also believe CEOs should make a statement about their personal commitment.

Never before has the state of the world placed such an onus on leaders to clear the path to operate business as usual in an unusual environment. With shifting stakeholder needs and attitudes being shaped through unpredictable social, economic and – with the 2020 U.S. presidential election looming on the horizon – an increasingly political lens, executives must walk an incredible, narrowing tightrope to communicating authentically and impactfully this fall.

With the stakes high, here is a look at what to expect and how CEOs can navigate.

The Path to November: Expect Controversy

Uncertainty, emotions and highly politicized social issues are guiding the world’s conversations. The tumultuous dialogue that surrounds the November U.S. presidential election has increased pressures and exposed deep divisions, making messages that might have previously been neutral more controversial in the eyes of stakeholders.

In the swirl of many opinions, the nation is craving clarity. Yet, for CEOs, many of today’s conversation topics are deceptively complicated. For example:

  • Safe Reopening: In the eyes of many stakeholders, masks have become a political statement, threatening the safety of employees and customers on all sides of the issue. Leaders, like those at major retailers, will have to carefully consider the rationale for tough decisions, knowing that no matter how well-justified, there will be backlash – on social, with employees and the media.
  • Medical Treatment: As the world awaits scientific breakthroughs to help manage and prevent further spread of COVID-19, CEOs and their audiences are evaluating a range of factors across the medical supply chain – from the validity of accelerated research findings and vaccine manufacturing processes to distribution strategies and other supporting measures that help ensure the delivery of effective medical care. Science is happening in real time. And, with the dueling narratives of the election in the backdrop, expect companies to face increased scrutiny in speaking to their role in accelerating the delivery of treatment and ensuring the safety of potential treatments.
  • Worker Health and Safety: The balance between economic security and personal health is a precarious one. The questions arising about the Future of Work range from reshaping office space and real estate needs to questions of privilege related to the protections and social safety nets often afforded to corporate workers versus those who find themselves on the front lines of essential businesses.
  • Diversity & Inclusion: Many organizations took strong stances on equity, equality, diversity and inclusion over the summer. Particularly, during the election cycle, watchdog groups and ESG investor groups are closely monitoring corporate and individual political donations to ensure financial actions align with corporate values.
  • Techlash: Technology has been celebrated for enabling what’s possible in a pandemic era, but a recent study from FleishmanHillard finds nearly 60% of consumers believe the technology sector needs to address the consequences of its policies, practices and products, and do right by consumers to build trust.

Speaking Up When One-Size-Fits-None

The decisions facing each company and CEO on how, when, and where to show up and elevate their voice have been and will continue to be unique. The “right” moment to speak up and speak out won’t be uniform and is more likely to be tied to industry, region or a calling of corporate purpose. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy, some principles to navigate engagement shine through:

  • Participate Selectively: It can be easy to examine the pitfalls of speaking out and elect to speak quietly, or even, remain silent. In today’s current state of national affairs, silence can be seen as complicit. Companies and their leaders need to have a strong pulse on their stakeholder expectations and what’s important to them to feel heard, connected and engaged to continue on the path as partners in the current landscape of uncertainty. CEOs must choose their topics and their moments to lean in … lest they be chosen for them as new crises or politicized rhetoric thrusts their organization unintentionally into the spotlight.
  • Set the Vision on Your Terms: End-of-year communications are more important than ever for setting the tone and vision for the future – in a way that’s transparent to stakeholders and on the business’ own terms. For some CEOs, annual reports and year-end employee videos may be choice venues, while others may prefer a LinkedIn post. Whatever the medium, it’s critical to make the message a clear stance on what’s important to the organization here and now, as well as set expectations for what the near future may hold.
  • Walk Your Truth Tightrope: When speaking up, consider your communication objectives, the substance to your actions and the authenticity of your voice. Every action you take will be traced to your corporate ethos or purpose, and as stakeholders seek a clear voice, they may not always agree. Walking the tightrope requires a careful balance between your personal ethics, your corporate values and your stakeholder needs.

Executives will continue to cross unfamiliar territory, and it’s important CEOs and their communicators resist the urge to stand still and wait for the storm to pass. Those who wait can expect to find the business landscape, stakeholder expectations and our societal structures have transformed while they were sitting on the sidelines. With the right use of platforms, chief executives are uniquely and strongly positioned to drive business in a way that meets the critical needs of their employees and customers.