It’s almost impossible to escape politics these days. And by politics I mean the kind that’s become less civil and more polarizing. It surrounds us through 24/7 news coverage, social media channels, and… our co-workers.
A New York Times article, “Edelman, Public Relations Giant, Drops Client Over Border Detention Centers,” is another reminder of the growing advocacy of a long list of stakeholders — including employees, customers, clients, students, investors, and donors — and the expectation that sides or positions are taken on issues. When entering this realm, organizations must make calculations on whether or not an issue has relevance and really matters to them, and the value of taking a side or not.
There are hard choices to be made. So, as people find their voices (or blindly follow the herd) and leverage the tools of the digital world to amplify their message, organizations need to be prepared. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a business, university, charity, or political group. You may choose to proclaim neutrality but that, too, is often treated as just another position like right or left, for or against. It could even be seen as a weakness — the lack of will to take a stand and express the character of the organization. Expect to be challenged, no matter what.
The NYT piece — and what employees are telling us — underscores a few key points organizations must consider in an increasingly demanding environment:
1. Define your purpose and gain alignment. Organizations must ensure its stakeholders know the purpose — the mission — of the institution. People need context and a clear understanding of where the organization fits within its competitive set and where the employee fits within organization. All decisions need to support the objectives and culture of the institution.
2. Declare your values and limits. The article begs the age-old question: Are there people or organizations that do not deserve to be recognized or represented? In a legal situation, the answer is clear but in other sectors of business and society there are choices to be made. Organizations should declare their values, their operating principles, and enforce ethical standards. It’s not feasible to name every person, company or institution that might be off limits but you can define your beliefs and set up a structure to review and discuss critical decisions.
3. Keep up with the trends and act. Obviously, some issues are easier to address than others. The bigger the controversy — the bigger the ideological divide — the harder it may be for organizations to decide whether or not to take a side and which side they will take. Some organizations are first movers, others are fast followers, and some wait to evaluate the reactions of their stakeholders and step in when it’s deemed “safe.” And, of course, there are those who remain on the sidelines. Key audiences will see you as courageous or cautious, right or wrong. That’s where leadership and points 1 and 2 above come into play. There should be a process to monitor the issues landscape and discuss:
- Who might offended or flattered
- What business could be driven away or won
- Which employees might be alienated or attracted
- How it might all be communicated
No one needs to tell you that we’re operating in a hot mess of division and high expectation. We need to be thinking and planning… all the time. Paraphrasing management guru Peter Drucker: If we’re not changing and innovating, we’re dying. And, while we can’t prepare for every scenario, we can take some basic steps to better listen, evaluate, and communicate.
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