It seems that now, more than ever, companies are taking public stances on the pressing social issues of our times.  From racial injustices highlighted by the horrendous deaths of George Floyd, Philando Castile and countless others, to bathroom access of transgender individuals, to the threat of global climate change — organizations of all types and sizes are pronouncing their sentiments to their constituents and the general public.

Why are we seeing organizations, especially for-profit corporations, increasingly taking such public stances?  Societal expectations regarding corporate behavior have shifted over the years and, increasingly, corporations are recognizing — and even embracing — these societal expectations and the vital role that they play in modern society.

But what can organizations do to demonstrate that their stances on social issues are genuine, as opposed to mere platitudes that are worthy of public skepticism and scorn?  When taking a stance on social issues, companies must calibrate, communicate, collaborate, actuate, and evaluate.

Calibrate

First and foremost, it is critical for the organization to ensure that its stance on the social issue aligns with the organization’s expressed values.  An organization’s expressed values serve as its guide star, especially during difficult circumstances.  Of course, if a company has not yet defined its core values, there are numerous reasons why they should do so.  Companies that maintain strong, stated values that are central to their core being attract purpose-driven leaders, imbue a sense of meaningful work in their employees and achieve greater overall success.

Communicate

Once the organization has formulated a stance on the social issue in a way that aligns with its stated values, communicating that stance publicly is a critical step.  But it is just that: a necessary, but not sufficient, step.  Though words certainly carry meaning, when communicating its position on a social issue, it is absolutely critical that the company understand that tangible actions that support its words are even more important. 

As such, the company should make it clear that tangible actions in support of its stance are forthcoming.  The organization must commit to acting in accordance with its stance and communicating publicly about what those actions will be.

Collaborate

As the company thinks about what actions it should take in light of the social concern, it is absolutely critical that it seeks the advice and guidance of its stakeholders.  Employees, customers, suppliers, owners and — importantly —the communities that affect and are affected by the company, must be engaged in order to come up with the ideal plan of action.  This collaborative effort will surface differing perspectives, experiences, and viewpoints, all of which should be heard, acknowledged and harmonized.

Actuate

The end result of these stakeholder collaboration efforts should be a tangible action plan for the company that, if adhered to, will demonstrate its commitment to its core values and the stance taken on the social issue.  The action plan should consist of key initiatives, specific supporting actions the company will take and the timeframes associated with such actions.  Again, the company should communicate this plan publicly and actuate it with appropriate resources and accountability mechanisms to ensure successful implementation.

Evaluate

As the social issue action plan is implemented by the company, how it is implemented, as well as the results, should be actively monitored and evaluated by the company and its stakeholders.  Often, the best-designed plans fall short to some degree.  Monitoring and evaluating will allow the company to course correct if needed, assist in understanding where more needs to be done and will help “raise the bar” to even greater levels for future action.

Twitter said advertisers pulled back on marketing on its platform during the racial equity protests in the United States in June Twitter said advertisers pulled back on marketing on its platform during the racial equity protests in the United States in June Photo: AFP / Olivier DOULIERY

To help foster public trust and corporate accountability, the company should publish the results of these evaluations, along with corresponding action plans that address the results so that the company can demonstrate a continuing commitment to the social issue and the values upon which the social stance was taken.

Taking a stance on a social issue and acting in accordance with values can be difficult — for both individuals and companies.  Like individuals, companies don’t always get it right.  And, just like when individuals take a difficult stance based on values, companies that do so incur risk. They risk the ire, alienation and abandonment of those who disagree with the company’s stance with respect to a social issue.  After all, customers and other constituencies increasingly are choosing to engage in business relationships and transactions that align best with the social viewpoints that are important to them.

As organizations express their values and stances on social issues, they have to mean it, of course.  A well-crafted and well-timed press release means little if it isn’t backed up by tangible action.  However, if success means “doing the right things in the right way,” conducting business with integrity — especially during difficult times — is critical for business success.

(Professor Robert Föehl is the executive in residence for business law and ethics in the College of Business at Ohio University.)