As communicators are aware, brands and businesses face increasing pressure to take stands on a variety of social and political issues these days, but new research from The Conference Board finds that only 10 percent of companies are responding publicly to the recent Supreme Court decision (Dobbs) on women’s reproductive rights. And only 4 percent are publicly addressing the recent decision (Bruen) on gun regulation.
However, the survey reveals that a majority have either addressed or plan to address the decision on women’s reproductive rights internally. Significantly fewer, however, are internally addressing the ruling on gun regulation. That may be due in part to the pressure companies are receiving: 26 percent of companies stated they have felt pressure to respond to the Dobbs ruling, and 13 percent felt pressure to respond to both decisions, but no firms stated that they had felt pressure to respond only to the Bruen decision.
“Companies should have a clear process and criteria for deciding whether, when, and how to respond to social issues,” said Paul Washington, executive director of The Conference Board ESG Center, in a news release. “The pressure to address these and other social issues is unlikely to abate. Having clear guidelines can help set expectations for how the company will respond in the future and ensure that the company is appropriately taking into account the divergent views of multiple stakeholders.”
Key findings include:
Even when companies do not speak up publicly, they may address issues internally based on the nature of the subject
- 10 percent of companies responded to Dobbs, or plan to respond, with public statements.
- Only 4 percent have made a public statement on Bruen.
- Racial, LGBTQ+, and gender equality—and COVID-related topics—have been the predominant focus of corporations’ public statements on social issues in the past two years.
- Racial equality: 61 percent
- LGBTQ+ rights: 44 percent
- COVID-related topics: 40 percent
- Gender equality: 39 percent
- A majority (51 percent) either have addressed, or plan to address, women’s reproductive rights internally.
- Addressed internally: 38 percent
- Planning to address internally: 13 percent
- Haven’t decided whether to respond: 10 percent
- Not planning to respond: 31 percent
- Of those companies responding to Dobbs internally, the most common responses are to communicate existing healthcare benefits to employees or to offer travel expense benefits.
- Communicating existing healthcare benefits: 42 percent
- Offering travel expense benefits: 30 percent
- Significantly fewer—9 percent—are addressing Bruen internally. 73 percent are not responding.
- Not all companies have been silent on gun issues. 22 percent addressed gun safety before Bruen in a variety of ways.
- Discussed gun safety internally: 74 percent
- Made a public statement: 18 percent
- Donated to nonprofits relating to gun safety: 18 percent
“These issues are amongst the hardest to tackle for those in Corporate Communications, both internally and externally,” said Ivan Pollard, leader of The Conference Board Marketing & Communications Center, in the release. “There is no right answer to what to say or what to do, but there is a right approach. This is based on a company’s values, commitments to all its stakeholders, and its business. They should think deeply, act wisely, and stay connected to what other companies are doing.”
Similar types of events can lead to widely divergent responses
- While 26 percent of companies stated they have felt pressure to respond to the Dobbs decision, and 13 percent to both decisions, no firms stated that they had felt pressure to respond only to Bruen.
- Almost half (47 percent) of companies report receiving no pressure to take a stand on either issue.
Companies need to ensure they have a consistent way to respond to employee pressure on social issues
- Of the companies that have received pressure to respond to the Court’s decisions on reproductive rights and guns, 78 percent said the pressure came from individual employees and 55 percent cited employee resource groups.
“Employees are not only a primary source of pressure for companies to take stands, but also a primary audience for the corporate response,” said Rebecca Ray, Ph.D., executive vice president of human capital at The Conference Board, in the release. “Companies should consider establishing a mechanism for employees to raise issues and should have consistent criteria and a process for management to decide whether and how to address those issues. For example, some firms have asked employee resource groups to provide regular input to the CEO; others have established a separate employee committee to raise issues for senior management and board consideration.”
The criteria for deciding whether to address a social issue should include more than “company values”
- 61 percent of companies cited the issue’s relationship “to the company’s core values” as a criterion for deciding whether to take a stand on the issues raised by the Supreme Court’s decisions.
- 29 percent cited the relationship to the company’s business.
- 23 percent mentioned the ability to make a meaningful impact.
Senior management can take steps to avoid becoming an “echo chamber” in deciding the company’s position on social issues
- 75 percent of companies said the decision to take a stand on the two decisions rested with either the CEO or the CEO and senior management team, collectively.
- Many fewer included government relations, corporate citizenship/community relations, marketing, finance, and investor relations in the decision—despite the fact that these functions could help represent the views of the company’s regulators, communities, consumers, and shareholders:
- Government relations: 29 percent
- Corporate citizenship/community relations: 18 percent
- Marketing: 15 percent
- Finance: 14 percent
- Investor relations: 11 percent
- While they seldom make the decision to take a stand, a majority of boards are being involved beforehand or informed at the time of decision.
- Consulted beforehand: 24 percent
- Informed after decision: 17 percent
- Informed beforehand: 13 percent
- Informed at the time of the decision: 11 percent
“Americans’ trust in business leadership unavoidably places CEOs and their C-suites at the nexus of public policy issues,” said Dr. Lori Esposito Murray, president of the Committee for Economic Development, the public policy center of The Conference Board (CED), in the release. “Managing the growing expectations of multiple stakeholders will require new and evolving leadership skills, and consequently, broad engagement in the pursuit of knowledge and insights both inside and outside the company walls.”
Companies need to prepare for ongoing pressure to address the issues of reproductive rights and gun safety through internal policies, political activities, and nonprofit contributions related to these issues
- Few companies have decided to address the issues of women’s reproductive rights and guns by making adjustments in their lobbying activities, political contributions, or nonprofit contributions. But these areas are not likely to escape employee scrutiny—or pressure—for long.
- For Dobbs:
- Lobbying: 2 percent
- Adjusting political contributions: 4 percent
- Donating to nonprofits: 6 percent
- The factors considered in deciding whether to adjust lobbying, political contributions, or employee health benefits are likely to be more complicated than those involved in deciding whether to make a public or internal statement on an issue.
The survey polled nearly 300 US public, private, and nonprofit corporations, more than half with annual revenues over $1 billion (60 percent), from June 30-July 8. Respondents weighed in on how companies are responding to social issues, including those raised by two recent rulings: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on women’s reproductive rights, and New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n v. Bruen on gun regulation.