Businesses could once afford to wait weeks or even months to vet the right public affairs response to a flare up; they now must be prepared to do so within hours. In social media analysis of recent situations—including the response to North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill”—the window for attention in social media has been 48 hours or less. A corporate response that misses the mark can tarnish a company for years. And employees look to those public moments as a yardstick to measure how well their company is led and living by its stated values.
The key to addressing touchy social issues effectively in real time is advance planning. In the wake of the shooting of 12 police officers in Dallas, Texas, in 2016, PwC’s newly installed US Chairman and Senior Partner Tim Ryan responded by scaling up a conversation with partners and staff firmwide to air their concerns. This resulted in a determination to move more CEOs to not only lead similar conversations in their own organizations, but work together to advance issues of diversity across all workplaces. PwC co-facilitated the creation of CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™, a network that now includes over 650 companies, nonprofits and academic institutions.
Then, in November of last year, 26-year-old Botham Jean, a PwC Senior Associate in Dallas, was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in his own apartment. Mr. Jean was black and the officer, Amber Guyger, is white. Ms. Guyger says she thought she was in her own apartment and that Mr. Jean was a burglar. “All of a sudden, it was one of our own,” Mr. Ryan told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
The national outrage and concern surrounding the case were fueled by a heavy burden of questions, anger and fears. Conversations that had typically been relegated to homes and communities were encouraged in the PwC workplace. While a work in progress, Mr. Ryan’s institutional commitment to openness, building trust and understanding, allowed a more honest airing of these concerns and demonstrated the firm’s commitment.
PwC’s experience highlights the degree to which companies must be prepared to respond quickly and confidently, with a message of clarity and compassion, on issues that affect not only their relationships with investors and regulators, but also their employees and the community as a whole. As a response to social issues becomes more expected, the need to be proactive has increased. Certainly, when a response to a major issue in current events is perceived as inadequate—whether the Parkland, Florida school shooting or a supply chain labor issue—employee morale, loyalty, retention and recruiting are affected and the business as a whole suffers. “If you’re carrying all these concerns when you come to work—whether you’re a woman, whether you’re black—and you can’t share how you feel, the fact that we have you in the seat means nothing,” Mr. Ryan told the Journal. “We want you to be here mind and body.”