Discussing Social Change: Don’t Leap Before You Look!

Erik Bernstein crisis management

Looking before you leap is Crisis Management 101

Interest in issues related to societal change, topics like diversity and inclusion, among others, is at an all-time high, and we’re seeing engagement on those issues steadily rise. This rise is being driven by a constant barrage of events, like the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action that’s still pending at time of writing for this blog, that force hot-button issues into daily conversation. Regardless of what creates the conversation, it’s safe to say that the question of whether your organization will engage in discussion of social change has become one of “When?”, not “If…”

I’m not going to deep dive individual issues here, and I’m not telling you what your position needs to be. What I’m telling you is, like it or not, you will be talking about these issues related to social change at some point. The form it takes may differ – many of you out there may mention them via internal communications or in direct conversations with team members, while others may be engaging publicly with the issues and deliberately becoming a vocal supporter. Regardless of how it happens, it’s going to happen, and before it does you need to be informed, aware, and prepared for potential outcomes. Regardless of how well intentioned you may be, or how necessary the conversations become, you’ll never please everyone, and being ready to deal with negative reactions (particularly ones that are likely to be driven by strong emotions) is critical to preventing or mitigating as much potential for damage as possible.

So how do you make sure you’re going into this difficult arena with your eyes wide open? It’s really Crisis Management 101. First, listen to your key stakeholder groups! This includes your own employees and business partners, along with your customers or client base. What do they care about, and why? Listening well will help you to determine which conversations you should be a part of, and which you’re better leaving to others. Don’t forget the option of simply asking various groups what they think about issues you’re considering too, while tools that measure social media sentiment and similar are extremely powerful today, a well thought out survey can be a great supplement to these higher-tech options. You may find that stakeholders have less interest in issues you thought they might be passionate about, or discover new criticisms you didn’t know were out there.

Once you have a good handle on what people want and how they feel, determine how much your brand is willing to – or even should! – engage on the issue. For example, will you be keeping your cards close and only providing key messages for management to use in direct discussions with concerned employees? Will you be voicing a quiet message to staff acknowledging there are issues and opening up a conversation, or will you be sponsoring major events and purchasing ad space to publicize your stance? Avoid the instinct to try to sell from the podium on these topics – while social stances can build your brand equity, you’ll sink yourself quickly if you’re caught making it a cheesy profit grab.

Next, select your key messages and distribution methods carefully, and, just as carefully, work to understand what you’ll say in response to any negative feedback. Consider all audiences and communication mediums here too, after all what you say on Twitter to an outside party is likely not the exact same thing you ask team leads to share with your own employees!

Your work isn’t done when your first set of messaging rolls out either. Continue to keep the lines of communication open, adapt as needed depending on early reactions, and be open to admitting fault or learning from missteps if they occur. It’s always important to actually take measure of response to any decision, whether it’s to take action or do nothing for now. Make sure you continue to listen, measure, and engage in order to ensure your level of response isn’t creating additional issues along the way.

Taking the lay of the land is critical to ensure you don’t make missteps when it comes to crisis prevention and crisis management efforts. I feel a lot better knowing where I stand before my feet leave the ground, and I think you will too.

Erik Bernstein