Originally appeared in Washington Technology on June 18, 2020
Thought leadership isn’t just for when times are good. When thought leaders share their informed opinions and perspectives, people listen. People are eager for ideas, perspectives, inspiration, direction. Why, then, are so many corporate brands and company leaders slow to speak up when times are tough or in times of crisis?
I’ve been contemplating this question for years. Especially when I talk to executives who are reluctant to communicate internally and externally about mergers, acquisitions, or c-level hires. Now, I’m seeing COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd tap into that same reticence.
My concern is that if companies don’t communicate in times of crisis or change, people make up their own versions of the story. They could believe that the company doesn’t care about what’s happening. Doesn’t care about them. And in time, those people could look for other companies to work for, to do business with.
Business-to-consumer companies are the most agile. Their brands have plans and roadmaps to react quickly, to take their stand – often through social media and advertising. Not everyone can have a team at the Super Bowl, poised to respond to a real-time power outage with the now-classic Oreo tweet, “Power Out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark.”
But consumer brands are usually the fastest and most visible to respond to real-time events. Dove’s Courage is Beautiful ad honors COVID-19 front-line medical workers by showing first responders with marks on their faces from wearing protective gear. And Nike’s brilliant socially conscious ad series urges individuals to NOT “Just Do It.” Nike urges, “For once, don’t do it. Don’t turn your back on racism.”
Industry business leaders are usually next to speak up. This Forbes article shares excerpts of communications about racial inequality to employees and customers from the CEOs of Merck, LinkedIn, JPMorgan Chase, Black Rock Financial, Apple, Microsoft and more. The U.S. chair and senior partner of PWC US wrote a blog following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, “and the countless other Black individuals before them.” He urges company leaders to act, to use their “privilege, platforms and resources to help solve the most entrenched problems plaguing society.”
You better believe that stakeholders of these companies are listening. And judging. And deciding whether the words (or silence) reflect who they believed these companies and leaders to be.
In our little corner of the world of federal government and government contractors, it’s a lot quieter. On the one hand, it makes sense. Government contractors are generally more conservative than their B2B industry counterparts. Slower to act. Softer in speech. Reluctant to rock the boat of their client, the largest employer in the U.S.
But I believe that social causes can and should be tied to the beliefs of a business. Not every social cause for every business, of course.
But the thing I keep thinking about is that the mission of the U.S. government is to serve our citizens. All of them. And when it’s your client’s job to serve all citizens, it seems a small step to align with that mission. I urge B2G leaders to embrace the rights of all people and denounce racism, intolerance, and bigotry, even if just to your own employees. It’s a start.
I know I’m asking a lot in an industry that’s not used to shining any kind of controversial light on their company and leadership. Maybe that’s why I’m so struck by the few examples I’ve found of strong government and government contractor executives who have spoken up.
A quick shout out to:
- The U.S. Army, whose top leaders have published written statements and video messages about racial divisions and the need to listen
- Jeff Knittel, the Chairman and CEO of Airbus Americas, who posted a two-part message on LinkedIn following the death of George Floyd and the aftermath. He urges that “This is a critical time for our country. This is not a time to remain silent.”
- Jacobs , whose Equality web page features multiple messages from Chair and CEO Steve Demetriou to very clearly spell out his – and the company’s “unparalleled focus on inclusion.” The page urges “Speak up. Speak out.”
Thank you, all, for your words. Your actions. Your thought leadership.
Where do you stand?