Today’s chief executives are getting pulled into the most contentious social debates while trying to prevent their companies from becoming flashpoints in the culture war du jour.
This spring, Disney, Target, and Bud Light found themselves the targets of orchestrated campaigns to punish companies that support LGBTQ rights. No company seems safe: Chick-fil-A, long known for socially conservative values, is facing boycott threats for hiring a diversity executive.
While it may be tempting for CEOs to steer clear of social landmines, the chief executive of public relations giant Edelman’s U.S. operations, Lisa Osborne Ross, tells Fortune she’s advising her clients, which include many top-tier Fortune 500 companies, to stick to their guns on issues like gay rights and racial justice, and not cave into the pressure.
Today’s climate means navigating these problems while running a business. “Increasingly, CEOs have to realize this is actually part of your job.”
However painful it is now, companies that don’t stand up for the values they tout or that cave to the agitators will lose credibility with customers and workers alike, which is a serious threat to business, she says.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: It’s almost Juneteenth and three years after George Floyd’s murder sparked protests nationwide. What grade do you give corporate America for following up on racial justice pledges made at the time?
I’m a hard grader, so it’s a ‘C.’ Overall, companies did not come forward enough or meet their commitments. They raised expectations and engaged in conversations, but in some cases, they just joined a bandwagon. The companies doing a lot before this period are still doing so. But those who were not or jumped in because of peer pressure or FOMO (fear of missing out) are the ones that have pulled away because they were never fully committed in the first place.
It feels like CEOs are ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ when it comes to hot-button issues. Is there a case for just keeping your head down in the hopes of skirting controversy?
I have a strong point of view on this. Our point of view is that action earns trust. If you’re going to take a position, stick with it. Because otherwise, I will question how genuine you were in the first place. That’s where a lot of companies and brands are getting tripped up—when they’re not being consistent.
There is so much vitriol aimed at the LGBTQ community now, and the threats of boycotts abound. Playing devil’s advocate here: Shouldn’t CEOs fear this as they consider how vocal to be on social issues?
Backtracking kills your credibility. We have a great stat that shows standing firm is best. Research shows that 51% of U.S. workers say they are more likely to work for a pro-LGBTQ company, while 11% say the opposite. And 34% of consumers say they are more likely to buy from a brand that has supported LGBTQ rights, versus 19% who say less likely. The ROI (return on investment) is there, so get in there.
What do you say to a CEO who might argue that wading into social issues distracts from running their core business?
In today’s corporate world, that is your business. You have to be aware of all these things all the time. Scenarios have changed, and the culture has changed. I think COVID and the racial reckoning have really changed what is required of a CEO. It’s not just a P&L (profit and loss) or the bottom line anymore. We’ve also seen a broadening of our major stakeholders. One of your most important stakeholder groups now is your employees. So if a CEO complains, ‘Now I have to talk about this, but I also have to run my company,’ I say, ‘Yes, you have to do both since workforces increasingly require that.’
Does it annoy you when a CEO ignores your advice?
If they don’t really hear it, I’m annoyed. But if they hear it and decide to move in a different direction, I’m okay. Then you have to be ready to guide them whatever the consequence.
There’s quite a bit of pushback on ESG lately. Do the critics have a point?
I think everybody has a point. To be effective in business, you must recognize that everyone has a point, even if it’s different from yours. There’s a lot of narrative about pushback on ESG, but I see a lack of alignment between that narrative and action. Just 10 years ago, no one even knew what ESG was, so this is a muscle we are just learning to flex. Some aren’t sure how it’s different from CSR (corporate social responsibility). But language matters, and some of the pushback is around what ESG means exactly. In some way, there has been damage done to the movement by focusing on terms and not talking enough about the impact of those actions.
What areas within diversity do you think executives need to pay more attention to? Socioeconomic diversity? Ideological diversity?
That question scratches an itch for me. I don’t use the word diversity; I use ‘representation.’ A company has to be representative of the world around it. And to be representative, everybody must have a seat at the table. This is not about moving my white, straight male colleagues out from anything but adding more seats to the table, so I can also hear the views of somebody who went to a junior college or someone from the South or the Plains states. I need geographic representation and ideological representation, too. I counsel my teams to be cautious about going to the market without having varied points of view.
What do you make of companies that sponsor Pride events or are vocal around Juneteenth but are otherwise quiet in the face of current challenges to LGBTQ rights and racial justice?
I struggle with commemorative months because they can slip into becoming performative too quickly. I am Black 24/7, I am a woman 24/7, my colleagues who are transgender are transgender 24/7, and those who are gay are gay 24/7. My point of view on Pride month and Juneteenth is I struggle with how you take a community and focus on it for a month, and then go about your business for the rest of the year. To truly see someone, you have to interact with them 24/7. So on Juneteenth, I would say I’ve moved from rage to snarky acceptance.
Get to know Osborne Ross:
- The longtime Washington, D.C., resident is an honorary fire chief with the Metro Fire Chiefs Association because she has taken numerous safety trainings.
- She held several communications roles in the Clinton Administration between 1996 and 2001, including a top role at the Labor Department.
- She worked in PR at APCO Worldwide as a managing director before joining Edelman. She started her career in PR at the FleishmanHillard agency in 1988.
Read the full article here