Navigating Sensitive Topics: A Guide for Corporate Communicators in 2024

January 25, 2024

You don’t need to be glued to the news every day to notice that the landscape of corporate communication on sensitive topics has evolved significantly, which is largely attributed to a wide array of cultural and political changes around the world, and particularly in the United States. The era of visible corporate activism and public alignment with key social issues by companies we saw in 2020 following the episodes of social unrest seem to be long gone and the current climate demands a more cautious and deliberate approach.

As we move into what is likely to be another tumultuous year, companies need to reassess their communication strategies to ensure they are tempered, fully aligned with their values and make sure they don’t accidentally get included in the news cycle for the wrong reasons. Below are five best practices all corporate communicators should implement in 2024.

1. Be Purposeful and Prepared

The mantra “failing to plan is planning to fail” has never been more relevant. Given the unpredictable nature of events over the past several years, companies should create a template or plan outlining the issues or situations they would consider commenting on and how they would do it. Debating if you will publicly comment on a situation on a case-by-case basis sets companies up to make inconsistent choices, and vulnerable to potential criticism from key stakeholders who feel the companies’ words and commitments aren’t genuine. For example, if a company were to come out and make a strong statement on a specific issue, they are setting a precedent that if that similar situation were to rise again, media, employees and other key stakeholders will expect they do the same in the future.

2. Avoid Overpromising

In a world where activists and the public closely monitor corporate statements, overpromising and underdelivering can be disastrous. It may sound beneficial in the moment to make broad statements or kick the can down the road by making specific future commitments that are most likely unattainable; however, authenticity is key. Companies should refrain from making statements for the sake of making them. The focus of any comment should highlight tangible steps taken, avoiding platitudes and emphasizing available resources or relevant services to employees. The short-term benefit does not outweigh the potential long-term reputational harm.

3. Keep a Finger on the Pulse

Understanding the sentiments of your key stakeholders and consumers is essential. Dedicated individuals or teams should monitor the evolving landscape, recognizing that the organization’s internal views may not always reflect the broader public opinion. Surveys, competitor tracking and regular assessments of consumer priorities provide valuable insights.

4. Prioritize Internal Communication

Employees are stakeholders with a vested interest in their employers’ decisions and stances. Additionally, data shows the American public feels that if companies are to take a stand on an issue, it should be promoted and implemented internally, rather than trying to appeal to external audiences. In fact, according to an APCO survey, more than three-quarters of the public (78%) approve of a company responding to a current event issue by making changes internally through a policy change rather than external action (61%) by speaking out in the media.

5. Audit Existing Messaging

What could have been seen as a best practice few years ago in communicating on societal issues or topics, now could leave companies vulnerable to litigation and public condemnation from prominent political activists and other key stakeholders today. It is imperative to review all public and internal materials with a fresh perspective to ensure messages are still aligned with your company’s values and don’t inadvertently stir up negative scrutiny.

The current political and cultural landscape has greatly shifted best practices in corporate communications and demands communicators re-calibrate and be more thoughtful regarding sensitive topics. 2024 is already expected to be a turbulent year and the last thing company leaders should be dealing with are reputational crises that could have been easily avoided through due diligence, strategic decision making and a commitment to keeping a finger on the pulse of the American public.

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