To speak or not to speak – that is the question

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Eva Ablett prepared this article for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

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In the days and weeks after 24 February 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, public opinion tightened the thumbscrews on global companies that hadn’t ceased trading in or with Russia. Meanwhile, in June of every year, our LinkedIn pages are filled with rainbow-coloured logos as corporate logos are temporarily changed for LGBTQ+ Pride Month.

Headlines suggest that the general public, employees and investors no longer expect only government organisations to support or denounce matters of social, political or environmental importance. Your company is expected to do so too.

Businesses may make decisions regarding climate strategies and other such policies on a board level. But it is the PR professional who should decide whether, when and how social, political and environmental issues should be addressed or responded to on a daily basis.

It is the PR professional who should decide whether, when and how social, political and environmental issues should be addressed or responded to on a daily basis.

A social conscience is what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a sense of responsibility or concern for the problems and injustices of society”. Should your company have a social conscience? If so, what should you be speaking out on?

The pressures of Corporate Social Responsibility

The pressure to respond to social and political issues is rooted in the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). This responsibility towards employees, investors, other stakeholders and society in general to make a positive contribution, has significantly evolved since the 1950s.

In the late 1950s and the early ‘60s, top economists like Levitti and Friedman[ii] were entirely comfortable in their argument that businesses should stick to doing business. Then, the rise of social justice, environmental and equality movements over the 1960s and ‘70s came with an increased desire of accountability for corporations. By 1991, Carroll’s Pyramid of CSR included not only economic and legal responsibilities, traditionally known to be inward-facing building blocks of corporate duty, but also the more abstract and outward ethical and philanthropic responsibilities on top[iii].

Taking on philanthropic responsibilities, which include donating to a cause or volunteering and publicising it, may be much more reputationally lucrative – and therefore appealing – than ensuring a business is run in an ethical manner on a daily basis, often behind the scenes. As such, it is not difficult to see how companies can shout from the rooftops about their philanthropic endeavours whilst falling short from an ethical perspective.

Since the 1990s the importance of CRS has increased further, as the internet and social media have created an ever-shrinking global village, in which consumers are able to exert more and more influence over the brands they use. They often know who the CEO is and are able to communicate with companies directly and publicly, via Twitter and other social media platforms. Society has reached a point where serious issues are recognised and debated, anywhere, anytime. As a result, accountability has never been higher and businesses no longer seem to get away with silence on what concepts and values they seek to be aligned with.

Meeting stakeholder expectations

This pressure on businesses to have a social conscience comes not just from potential consumers and the general public, but also from investors and employees.

The 2022 Edelman Trust publication The New Cascade of Influence shows that 63% of those interviewed buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values.[iv] Amongst those aged 14-26 this increases to just under three-quarters. Don’t underestimate this age group. While many of them don’t quite hold the purse strings, the influence they have over peers and parents is significant: according to the report, they influence what 6 out of 10 of respondents buy. In addition, these are your potential future customers, so their behaviour should be heeded as a glimpse into the future.

Also important is how a brand is perceived by those who might work for it. If you feel unable to support a brand or business that does not represent your values by buying from it, does it make sense to support it by working for it? The Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust in the Workplace found that 69% of respondents have a strong expectation that their prospective employer has a societal impact and see a lack thereof as a deal breaker when considering a job.v Consultancy firm Gartner established that 65% of employees want to work for an organisation that not only speaks out on social and political issues, but also takes some form of

Not demonstrating what your brand’s social values are might make it less attractive on both the market and the labour market. So if your company has opted to body swerve addressing these issues so far, now may be the time to start tackling them head on.

Choose your battles

No company should aspire to take a position on every issue. It is not their raison d’être – and they might end up looking opportunistic or even cynical.

According to Professor Paul Argenti[vii], Professor of Corporate Communication at Dartmouth University, New Hampshire, we should ask ourselves whether speaking out on an issue aligns with:

1) The company’s strategy

2) The company’s ability to exert any meaningful influence

3) The company’s stakeholder views

Broadly summarising: if the answer to each of these three questions is yes, your organisation should speak out on the matter in question. If not all answers are yes, Argenti advises that depending on each of the answers, it may still be worth speaking out, but following others; considering speaking out but not at this point in time; or refraining from taking a position altogether.

Crisis, issues and reputation specialist Andrew Griffin points out that there can be strength in numbers when considering responding.[viii] It might be worth exploring the possibility of issuing a coordinated response with industry leaders or competitors, or even via an industry body. This may be the case when it comes to unchartered territory or when your response may seem controversial to the general public. For instance, how will your company respond to the rapid rise of Artificial Intelligence?

It may also be that your company is an industry leader and therefore expected to speak out on issues affecting your sector or operations.

If an issue sits well within the company’s mission and vision, getting involved will likely be more credible.

If an issue sits well within the company’s mission and vision, getting involved will likely be more credible. A good example of a company with a clear strategy exerting meaningful influence is toiletries brand Dove, which has long since abided by its vision to “help women everywhere develop a positive relationship with the way they look, helping them raise their self-esteem and realise their full potential”. The brand’s advertisements feature exclusively women who are not professional models; makes no use of digital distortion in its campaigns; and offers free resources to help educate young people on body confidence.

You may find it useful to tackle the question whether you can exert any meaningful influence in two steps: 2a) what is the nature of the matter, and then 2b) what type of action would be meaningful.

Is the town up in arms because a local landmark is being threatened with closure? Then meaningful influence could take the form of financial support for the campaign or even a purchase. Are we talking about the climate emergency?

Then meaningful influence might require an overhaul of your entire company strategy, changes in suppliers, packaging, procurement, investment in research & development and so on. If the nature of the issue is related to equality, diversity and inclusion, a simple social media hashtag certainly won’t do. Any statement or contribution to such debates should be backed up by a concrete effort to achieve diversity all the way up to the C-suite and provide people from for instance different ethnicities, abilities and genders with the equity to maximise their potential. Only then, your company’s influence will become meaningful.

So ideally, words are joined by positive action. Does this mean following up with meaningful actions should be a prerequisite to speaking out? Surely not. After all, how many businesses are able to exert meaningful influence to persuade Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine? It’s difficult to argue this precludes them from making a statement.

While it can be perfectly acceptable to speak out on an issue without being able to act on it, the “do as I say, not as I do” approach must be avoided at all costs. Sportswear brand Nike has famously run ads centred around inclusivity, gender equality and female empowerment. The backlash was therefore significant when female athletes representing the brand revealed that the company had subjected them to pregnancy-related “performance-based” pay cuts.

Considering the views of your stakeholders requires nuance, as they are not a monolith. Some employees may want your CEO to make a statement on an issue, but investors occupying an entirely different demographic may be on the opposite end of the spectrum. Even amongst your employees there may be a scattering of opinions with no clear preference. It is therefore important to weigh views and interests up carefully in each particular scenario and then decide what your company should prioritise. Sometimes you may decide a statement is not financially worth it, while other times it may be unconscionable not to take action.

March to the beat of your own drum

Companies must be selective when balancing economic interests with ethical expectations. Hopefully, the considerations within this article provide a handy tool to help you decide whether to respond to hot topics, and you will find that many of them will fit within the social values of your company.

With so many social, political and environmental issues coming at us, it can be tempting to only make reactive statements and let what your company speaks out on be dictated by the news. Indeed, monitoring these issues can be a great way to decide to identify new causes your company could contribute to. But don’t lose sight of what your company is already doing through HR policies, donations, transparency and ethics. You could use those to select topics to speak out on and fit your statements around that. Does your company have a great record on gender equity and equal pay? Then reports and news regarding women’s rights are a good topic to engage on. Ongoing self-assessment and reflection is a great way to ensure that your company’s contribution is genuine, whilst garnering positive publicity.

Is the answer to the question whether an issue aligns with your company’s mission and vision often no? Are the words there in the first part of the annual report, but you can’t find any examples of action? Then your company should probably prioritise getting a functioning CSR strategy in place and worry about reactive statements later. Issuing responses to certain ethical topics in the news can be important. But in 2023, every organisation should really be guided by its own social conscience.


i Levitt, T. 1958. The dangers of social responsibility. Harvard Business Review. 36(5), pp. 1–50.

ii Friedman, M. 1962. Capitalism and freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

iii Carroll, A. B. 1991. The pyramid of corporate social responsibility: toward the moral management of organizational stakeholders. Business Horizons. 34(4), pp.39–48.

iv Edelman Trust. 2022. Special Report: The New Cascade of Influence, URL: [Accessed:12 April 2023]

v Edelman Trust. 2022 Special Report: Trust in the Workplace, URL: [Accessed: 12 April 2023]

vi Gartner. 2022. Why engaging with Social and Political Issues is a Non-negotiable for your Employee Value Proposition, URL: [Accessed: 18 April 2022]

vii Argenti, P.A. 2020. When should your company speak up about a social issue?, URL: [Accessed: 18 April 2023]

viii Andrew Griffin. 2014. Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management. London: Kogan Page.