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Things to Know Before You Take on a Hot-button Topic

Guest Article Provided by Sandra Harbrecht, Paul Werth Associates


Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Bob Iger recently told an interviewer that corporations have a duty to influence social change. His reasoning is that when government doesn't do enough to solve big problems, big companies need to step in and help. Moreover, he says, employees often expect it.

About a year ago, we reflected on the dynamics of taking corporate stands on controversial topics. Since then, a number of companies and CEOs have come out in response to various issues, some feeling that — despite the risks — they are obligated to speak out as a matter of principle.

Now comes a study by Morning Consult and Advertising Week that shows in detail just how complicated choosing your battles can be. "The 2020 Survival Guide" documents how age, politics and the issue at hand can determine whether or not a company will emerge right side up after wading into controversial waters.

Five key findings:

None of this changes our advice to clients. Taking a stand on a controversial issue poses risks, and sometimes the risks are not worth taking. However, there also is something to be said for standing on principle. When that time comes, how a leader makes the argument is just as important as his or her position on the issue. Offering a thoughtful solution to a problem will always be better received than simply railing against it.

The most important key for company leaders still is to know their audiences. Do the research, test your messages and understand the risks. Then, should you choose to speak out, may the odds be ever in your favor.


Sandra W. Harbrecht
President and CEO
Paul Werth Associates

* Paul Werth Associates is based in Columbus, Ohio.  Sandy presented a session titled "Socially Empowered Customers Are Taking Control - Realizing the Potential and Pitfalls of the Digital Age" at OAMES 2017 Annual Meeting & Exhibition.

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