Business’ Uncertain Social Role

Where does social responsibility end and politics begin?

Brands have been asking themselves this question ever since the COVID-19 pandemic turned them into unlikely public health partners. The death of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests prompted a broad range of corporations and CEOs to commit to addressing systemic inequality.

Events of 2021— like Georgia’s new voting law, the Atlanta spa shootings and the approach of the Beijing Olympicshave only increased the pressure on companies to take a stand on divisive social and political topics.

After President Biden described the new Georgia law as an “atrocity” and drew comparisons to Jim Crow laws— and several prominent Black chief executives signed an open letter calling on brands to denounce the Georgia law as restrictive—  many organizations condemned the legislation and even pulled business from the state. 

Yet those companies now find themselves in the political crosshairs with Republican disdain and threats of boycott. 

Brands still wondering if they should speak out or remain silent as they attempt to balance competing interests— and questioning whether it’s worth the backlash from either side — might consider these gating questions:

  • How does the issue in question align with the company’s values?
  • Has the company thoroughly reviewed and analyzed the issue?
  • What is the company hearing from its core stakeholders, beginning with employees?
  • Where is the company headquartered and doing business? Are the communities it serves impacted?
  • Does speaking out or staying silent put the company’s business at risk – in the short term or looking ahead?  
  • Has the company taken a position or acted on this issue in the past?
  • Would a company statement be consistent with all of its actions and policies, i.e., donations to elected officials or support of advocacy organizations?
  • Will the message the company intends to publish do anything to address the core problem?
  • Is the company willing to go beyond a statement and dedicate resources toward addressing the causes and closing the gaps which have allowed the issue to persist?