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Learning From Disney: Five Questions to Consider Before Speaking Out

Posted on May 10th, 2022. Posted by

Disney World entrance sign

The Walt Disney Company and its CEO Bob Chapek are paying a high price for staying outside of politics, and then jumping into it. Disney’s entanglements with its employees on one side and Florida’s governor and lawmakers have spilled over with very real implications. Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed into law a bill that strips Disney of its special tax status in the state, a move which will effectively change how the company operates.

Disney is a Fortune 50 company that wields considerable influence across entertainment, culture and in millions of consumers’ wallets. Not all companies have that kind of stature, which can bring both benefits and challenges. As companies of any size weigh the implications of entering (or sitting out) the highly charged arena of social commentary, here are five questions to ask before taking the leap.

What is State of Play?

First, identify the issue. State clearly – in ten words or less – what the issue at hand actually is and how and why it impacts your company and its stakeholders. This will allow you to successfully communicate about it internally and externally, in a clear and concise manner.  If you can’t do that, then perhaps it is too early or too complex of an issue to take a clear stand. Next, check social channels. What’s the temperature of the chatter? What are your constituents saying?  If appropriate, consider finding subtle ways to solicit input and take their pulse – don’t just rely on the perspective of those who choose to be vocal.  If the response is muted, it might be best to stay neutral. If it’s gaining velocity, then that may suggest a need to prepare a comment or response for more careful review.

Who Are Your People?

Every company has its people, constituents, stakeholders: employees, customers, partners, shareholders, community members, government officials. What matters to them? Knowing the wants and needs of your people allow you to better assess how they intersect with the issue (above) and your mission (see below). Stay aware and proportionally balance the viewpoints of all these groups when considering a response. And don’t forget those less friendly to your business and your cause, know what levers they can pull and actions they can take to hurt you. Know your friends well; and your adversaries even better.

What is Your Mission?

Disney’s mission is pretty straightforward: “…[T]o entertain, inform and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling…” It does not state any core values that it prioritizes over profit, as some younger companies tend to bake into their DNA these days. Both strategies have their pros and cons. In either case, authenticity is key. If you have stated certain issues are core to your mission, you have a responsibility to speak up. Constituents also know what they are buying into. On the flip side, an organization that does not have these values clearly stated should be careful when considering social commentary on them. People can tell an authentic statement from a posturing one.
Once you begin to take positions, your constituents will expect it on an increasingly larger variety of topics, which was clearly what happened with Disney.

Past, Present, and Future: Where are Your Blind Spots?

If your company has decided to speak out on an issue, you will need to take inventory of your current and past business practices to see if they match the words you say today. What if you’ve spoken out against a bill in one state when there is similar legislation proposed in another?  What if you advocate for a particular topic where your company has previously fallen short?  Keep your past and present actions in mind, as others – allies and critics alike – will be quick to point them out.

You’ll want to look into the future as well. If it’s a significant, national or global issue not likely to be resolved any time soon, what might change in the future – new products, services, markets – that could be impacted by actions you take today?  Be sure to understand how the passions or politics of the moment may be perceived down the road or in the context of a new or changed dynamic. Boxing yourself in or having to later backtrack can result in criticism far worse than taking – or not taking – a stand in the first place.

What Are Your Willing to Live With?

Leadership 101: You can’t please everyone. There are costs and benefits to all decisions – financial, legal, reputational. You must decide what consequences you can – and are unwilling to – live with. If your company has a superior product, then you may be willing to put up with a temporary business interruption, which is to be expected in this age of politically driven boycotts. What if it’s more than temporary? What if it means losing a bigger chunk of your business? In the case of Disney, they clearly offer a product that no one else in the world offers. And it’s enjoyed by people of all social and political stripes. But they may be headed into a protracted game of chicken with Florida lawmakers, with political and fiscal consequences on both sides. 

The Bottom Line

Responding to social movements is fast becoming the norm. Black Lives Matter, #metoo, the war in Ukraine, and the new legislative proposals across the country have all shown there are pros and cons to speaking out. Ultimately, words are just words until there is action to back them up. A statement gives a company an opportunity, but also an obligation to take substantive action.  Unless those words are supported by and align with broader company actions, simply making statements will have little impact and can potentially expose those who make them to further and deeper criticism.

Get the basics of your public relations strategy right before you dive into tumultuous waters. Download our Guide for Today’s Public Relations. Need help deciphering how your company should react to current events to emerge with business and reputation intact? Get in touch. 

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Westwicke Partners is the largest healthcare focused investor relations firm in the country. We provide customized investor relations programs and independent capital markets advice to small and mid-cap healthcare companies.

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