A Framework For CEOs And CMOs On When And How To Enter The Cultural Conversation

Published 1 year ago
Young businesswoman walking with digital tablet at coworking

Staying out of the socio-cultural fray is no longer an option for most brands and businesses. Can “safety” be a framework for when and how CEOs and CMOs should consider acting?

For the CEOs of the world’s largest companies, navigating when and how to enter cultural conversations, when and how to show solidarity, allyship and citizenship is fraught with real and perceived risk. The consequences of both action and inaction can be measured in an eco-system of reputational, economic and/or political impacts. The fear of alienating people, be they buyers, subscribers, employees, or shareholders en-masse, has long kept good people and good companies from doing more good things and standing up against more bad things. 

If we lived and marketed in precedented times, this would all be easier, but we don’t. We live and market in times when the values-based divide between red and blue is so enormous that civil war seems as likely as civil discourse. The once-unthinkable is now entirely thinkable as most identity groups—from the historically under-represented to the historically privileged—feel as if they are under attack—despite the socio-cultural, economic, legislative, and electoral evidence making clear that some remain far more so than others, and that not all perception is reality.


Today, brands are boycotted for pushing back against hate; for advocating for equity and inclusion; for doing and saying things that not so long ago would have seemed reasonable and right but, now, don’t. Making decisions about when to act and when not to is a calculus that, for CEOs and the CMOs who help them steward these brands and businesses, fraught with political and bottom-line considerations, as, no matter one’s heart or values, fiduciary duty calls. In fact, according to a recent survey, fewer than 10% of US companies spoke out against the SCOTUS Roe reversal. But staying entirely out of the cultural fray is no longer an option, no matter the risks, as people—whether buyers, employees, partners or vendors—are increasingly looking to businesses to address social issues, having lost trustin government’s ability to do same.

These growing expectations require a new level of corporate accountability and transparency to an ecosystem of stakeholders, not just shareholders. And as CEOs from across the globe watched as Bob Chapek was publicly pilloried both for what he, at first, didn’t do by remaining silent on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and then by Florida’s lawmakers who threatened massive economic consequences when he spoke out in support of ABC, they got scared.

So, how do you decide when and how to step in without, as Sarah Kate Ellis, the long-time President of GLAAD, an organization dedicated to accelerating change for the LGBTQ community, calls it, “sticking your neck out.”

While the work Ellis and GLAAD do focuses on the LGBTQ community specifically, she has a simple framework for determining when and why to get involved that has application to other communities as readily. The simple construct occurred to her at at The World Economic Forum in Davos this past May, as she listened to the assembled consider how to mitigate the risks of doing and saying something that needs to be done and said despite ramifications. Her very simple framework? Act when the safety of others is at risk.


“Companies and CEOs are having to speak up constantly on social issues,” she says, “and I was trying to think about how we could shift the narrative from isolated issues—LGBTQ+ rights, guns, Roe—and wondering what kind of framework we could build that is rooted in fact, and depoliticizes issues that (have been) wrongly politicized. These are not political issues, they impact the safety, health and well-being of humans across the board.”

The premise is great, but how exactly does one appeal to humans across the board when the pieces on the board are more akin to chess pieces battling than disparate parts of one whole?

To Ellis, it begins with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. “If you look at Maslow, ‘safety’ is foundational,” she reasons. “So, the framework should be simple and factual: it’s all about people’s safety. Safety in schools, safety at work, safety for women, safety for the LGBTQ community. Safety for the under-represented. You’re either for safety or against it.”

Who could reasonably be against safety? Well, at a time when 7% of Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows, anything’s possible. As Ellis points out, “there is a fringe that will always be fringe and you can’t argue with them, but you can have a stance and a framework that is for good and for all.”


But even “safety” can be subjective. When asked what she’d say to those would argue for the safety of the unborn child, she admits, “There’s no perfect framework. But CEOs are having to speak up all the time on one or another social issue and it’s a race on narrative. You’ve said you support us, you market to us, you have some policies and procedures, but what are you doing in the public sphere when the rubber hits the road? We think ‘safety’ lets them get ahead of issues and creates a decision tree that can help them do the right thing when the right thing seems hard.”

For businesses, no matter what or whom you ally with or against there will be those who love you for it and those who don’t. This has always been true — it’s just more so now, with no signs on the horizon that it will become less so moving forward. Employee, consumer, shareholder and stakeholder activism and expectations all but mandates corporate action, accountability and transparency in ways heretofore unconsidered. And this is true regardless of whether you fall on Hobby Lobby’s side of the conversation or Patagonia’s.

Ellis is, of course, right. No perfect framework for this exists in these particularly imperfect times. And as much as she thinks this is a framework for any one CEO, her bigger hope is that it becomes a framework for a coalition of them. “The biggest thing is CEOs going in together and sign[ing] some sort of shared declaration,” she says. “‘We believe in the safety of our employees and customers. This is where we stand, and we will act in support of (it) whenever it is challenged.’” 

Ensuring social, cultural, and economic safety seems a reasonable bar for businesses to hurdle. After all, if you can’t stand resolutely for the safety of those you work with, sell to, and seek to serve, what exactly can you stand for?


By Seth Matlins, Forbes Staff