How to Speak Out With Confidence

Taking a stand on social issues is a challenge, as Disney learned recently when critics accused it of wavering in its support of LGBTQ rights. CEOs have more freedom to speak out now—but advance planning is critical.

Taking half a stand isn’t taking a stand at all.

That’s one of the key lessons from the PR mess that Disney found itself in last week. The entertainment giant came under heavy criticism—including from its own employees—for its donations to Florida politicians who supported a recent bill in the state legislature restricting the discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools. Disney CEO Bob Chapek attempted to explain the company’s silence about the bill (dubbed “don’t say gay”) by trumpeting its track record of support for LGBTQ rights. In a memo to staff, he wrote, “We all share the same goal of a more tolerant, respectful world. Where we may differ is in the tactics to get there.”

But to many observers, that could only be seen as Chapek talking out of both sides of his mouth. By last Thursday, Disney saw the disconnect as well, announcing that it opposed the bill and that Chapek had spoken to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about it. 

Waffling will likely be seen as either quiet agreement with unpopular positions or simply blindfolded leadership.

Jeff Steen

Disney’s experience is an object lesson in two trends that are moving in tandem. First, customers and stakeholders are increasingly impatient with silence or toothless statements from organizations about hot-button political topics. Second, organizations now have more leeway to take a stand on those issues.

CEOs are aware of the change in atmosphere. A recent CEO survey conducted by Deloitte and Fortune [PDF] found that “ideological polarization” is an increasing challenge for leaders. Associations that engage in advocacy are used to taking stances in political debates that relate directly to their industries. But the field is wider now. Expectations have been heightened for leaders to take positions on issues—even ones that might not seem directly related to their mission—and they need to better prepare for them. 

As Jeff Steen wrote last week for Inc., “it’s important for business leaders … to think about how they will approach politically polarizing topics. When the questions do hit (and they will), waffling will likely be seen as either quiet agreement with unpopular positions or simply blindfolded leadership.”

All this can make leaders feel like they’re in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t predicament. But in general, people are comfortable with companies speaking out. A recent Financial Times poll of U.S. voters found general support for statements on social issues (though that support is stronger among liberal and moderates), and that a majority support statements on income inequality, racial equity, and climate change

So long as the statements aren’t hollow, that is. Last December, I wrote about how the American Association for Anatomy addressed conversations around social inequities by making an intentional effort to build DEI goals into its committee work, professional development, and awards. Such work has been more common in the association world since 2020, as George Floyd’s death made it clear that social justice issues are a challenge that every association needs to address. 

But it’s not a new phenomenon. In the past decade, for example, associations have been pressed to decide whether to hold their meetings in states where legislation conflicts with the organization’s code of ethics. That’s all the more reason for leaders to know when the association needs to speak out in sync with its stated values, lest it face accusations of hypocrisy, as Disney did. “You cannot be all things to all people,” Steen writes. But, he adds, “know what you stand for.”

How does your association handle making statements on social issues? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Just_Super/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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