Earlier this month, the Aspen Institute’s Business & Society Program Executive Director Judy Samuelson sat down with Roger Bolton, communications guru and current head of the Arthur W. Page Society. The topic at hand was CEO voice, and the role of companies in speaking out on the social issues of the day. From analysis of recent company’s making headlines, such as Disney and Eli Lilly, to the chilling effect of the blowback on companies, the conversation provided a strong guiding signal through the increasing noise around corporate social advocacy.
Here are some of the highlights and high notes:
- There is no neutral stance: In the past, many companies — in fear of alienating customers and other stakeholders — have avoided voicing an institutional perspective on social issues. Bolton drove home that silence is no longer an effective strategy for remaining out of the conversation, particularly when a company’s brand or product is connected to the issue at hand. “It’s impossible to avoid the controversy,” he stated, underscoring that companies need to anticipate the expectation from employees and customers to “take a stand” and plan accordingly. Hear more from Bolton on the changing expectations of stakeholders and the unintended consequences of remaining silent.
- Employees are a critical stakeholder: When asked what key tenets or principles Bolton would apply to corporate social advocacy, he said, “Tell the truth. Prove it with action. Listen to your stakeholders.” The success-defining stakeholder when it comes to corporate social advocacy is a company’s employees. Tune in to hear the guidance Bolton provides to executive and communication leaders on engaging employee perspective and managing polarizing employee viewpoints.
- Action and influence mean more than words: Bolton encourages companies to not only speak out, but to take action and have influence on the issues connected to their corporate values. Companies shouldn’t take action on every issue but should strategically select issues that are directly relevant to their business and upon which they can make an impact. This requires advanced planning — having a company’s values defined, outlining the issues that are of relevance, and preparing an action plan in advance of when they arise in headlines.
Throughout the conversation, Bolton lifted up the Chief Communications Officer as the role at the epicenter of this cultural change, underscoring the CCO’s responsibility to deeply and effectively engage across a broad array of stakeholders as they craft their company’s advocacy platform and prepare for action.
You can find the recording of the conversation below and the Chief Communications Officer Guide on Stakeholder Capitalism and ESG here.
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