Do CEOs Have to Jump into the Roe v. Wade Debate?

Determining the Wisdom of Corporate Issue Engagement Requires Analysis of Relevance, Resolve, Rewards and Repercussions  

5/5/22 – – On Tuesday morning, CEOs across America came into their offices or logged onto Zoom meetings and were asked this urgent question by their communications and HR colleagues: “What should we (you) say about the Roe decision?”    

Prompting the question was POLITICO’s publication on Monday evening of a leaked draft of a majority opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a Mississippi abortion rights case now before the court. If the ruling were to become a final decision, it would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that in 1973 established the federal right for women to have abortions, and send the contentious issue back to the state legislatures for adjudication.

As of this writing, the majority of US companies have been very quiet. Most appear to be monitoring developments and wisely focusing on internal audiences, reassuring their employees that insurance coverage for women’s reproductive health will remain a part of their benefits packages no matter what the high court rules or how state legislatures respond (some companies are already offering reimbursement for expenses to travel out of state for procedures not offered in the employee’s home state). 

Staying away from commentary on constitutional law or congressional maneuvering, they’re reaffirming what they are for and can control: the safety and health of their employees. They’re focusing on people, not politics.

Don’t expect the silence to last for long. There will be great pressure on CEOs to jump into this political briar patch.

PR gurus and business school professors are encouraging CEOs to tackle sensitive public issues, citing studies that show that employees, customers and communities want businesses to take stands in alignment with their personal values and views. The problem is, not everybody has the same values and views. Today’s world is split pretty evenly between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Our toxic political environment leaves little room for compromise or common ground. Take a stand on just about any important public issue and you’re likely to alienate — deeply offend — half of your employees and customers.

So, how should CEOs decide which hot-button issues to tackle and which to avoid? Based on my more than 35 years of experience in public relations and crisis management, I can confidently offer this unequivocal professional advice:

It depends.

I promise to be more helpful in the paragraphs below, but I want to emphasize that the right answer to this question is different for every company and every CEO. Who you are, what your company makes or provides, how you’ve responded to public issues in the past, the relevance of the issue to your business, your organization’s purpose and priorities, the opinions of your employees — all your employees — as well as your customers and communities come into play when weighing the wisdom of speaking up.

When assessing the merits of any public engagement, it’s important to take the time to understand the sensitivities of proponents of both sides of an issue (beware the loudest voices in the room — they may be boisterous and intimidating to compensate for their lack of numbers). And I encourage my clients to analyze issue-engagement opportunities by considering four factors: relevance, resolve, rewards and repercussions. Answer these questions:

How directly relevant is the issue to the nature and performance of your business, how consistent is your stand with your company’s purpose, and can you make a difference . . .  

How strongly do you and your key internal and external stakeholders feel about the issue and what’s your level of resolve to stay meaningfully involved . . .

What upside and rewards can you expect from all levels of engagement or silence. . . and

What repercussions may come your way from the risks you’re taking?

There are seismic events and moral issues that compel CEOs to make public pronouncements on behalf of their companies. Roe v. Wade may be one of them. But executives should not allow anyone to rush them into taking a public position they’re not comfortable with.

And they can take pressure off themselves and demonstrate respect for their employees by giving people at all levels of their companies (regardless of where they stand on any issue) time off from work to participate as private citizens in the political process as they see fit. Encouraging them to have their voices heard in their communities is good for everybody. It’s also good for democracy.

Hopefully, that’s what CEOs were discussing with their communications and HR executives earlier this week. So far, so good. My guess is that recent painful examples of CEOs picking destructive, expensive political battles have contributed to corporate America’s restrained, focused response to a dynamic, emotional, highly personal public debate.

How will this all turn out?

It depends.

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