What to Say & When to Say It: Guidelines for External Business Communications in a Time of Social Upheaval

From immigration to racial justice, police reform to LGBTQ+ rights, and an insurrection to Roe v. Wade, the past few years have seen issues of huge national importance and significant social upheaval cross into the public consciousness at a dizzying rate. In this time of social reckoning, organizations are regularly and repeatedly asked by consumers, employees, stakeholders, and the public: “Where do you stand on this?”  One simple question with many not-so-simple answers.

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Companies, businesses, schools, and non-profits alike often grapple with whether to proactively speak out on a given issue and, if so, what to say and when to say it. How and when an organization chooses to communicate about external societal issues with its audiences is among the most important scenarios that we help our clients think through.

Below are a few tips and questions we use to help guide our clients through these challenging decisions.

5 Tips for External Business Communication

1. Assess the situation

Is the issue that is being debated or discussed particularly relevant to your organization or a key group of your stakeholders? How widespread is awareness and coverage of the issue? Is this a news story of critical national significance? Or does it impact a region where many of your customers or clients are located? Understanding the proximity of a news story or issue and how directly it impacts – or doesn’t impact – your stakeholders can help clarify whether your company should speak out on it. Assessing the situation also involves monitoring the news and social media to understand how people are talking about an incident or event. There’s no quicker way to trouble than wading into a controversial issue without first understanding the full scope of the story and how it’s being discussed.

2. Be clear about your company’s values

It’s not realistic for an organization to speak out about every hot-button issue, but having a strong sense of your own organizational values will go a long way in providing clarity on when to speak out. Refer to your mission, vision, and values whenever possible and use that as a guidepost to govern your communications. For example, a nonprofit whose mission is to eradicate childhood poverty may feel the imperative to speak out about a bill ending family benefits around COVID-19 more urgently than other organizations because the issue directly impacts their mission.

3. Know your audience

Organizations drastically reduce the risk of disruption when the majority of their stakeholders agree with their message, as a 2020 study from the Harvard Business Review found. Weigh the story’s proximity to your audience and then ask yourself if most of them will understand why you are choosing to speak out or to stay silent.

4. You don’t have to be first…but you don’t want to be last

If you do decide to speak out publicly on a certain issue, you don’t always have to be first. Issues that directly impact your stakeholders often demand a fast response to show leadership and the power of influence. But not all do. If an issue aligns with your organizational values more indirectly, sharing a partner’s message or amplifying another group’s thoughts may make more sense. There’s nothing wrong with adding a voice of allyship and support if it’s an issue that others are better situated to take the forefront on. And while being part of a chorus is ok, you don’t want to be the last voice singing. If you choose to speak out, make sure you do so within the current news cycle so as not to be seen as too late and only jumping in because so many others have already done so.

5. Don’t make a decision based solely on emotion…but listen to your gut

Part of creating a set of guidelines to help clients make these decisions is to prevent them from communicating publicly in the heat of the moment solely based on their emotions. But we’re all human and no one can completely remove emotion from a difficult situation. So let your gut be one of the factors you weigh (but not the only one). Take the long view – when the moment of breaking news passes, how would you feel if you spoke out or stayed silent? Often what your gut tells you is the right thing to do will be the decision you feel best living with after the news cycle has moved on to its next controversy.

Need advice and guidance on external business communication?

None of these answers are clear-cut. Every situation requires a unique, tailored response. But adhering to a set of guidelines and knowing what your company stands for can help provide clarity when issues of critical importance arise. 

If you’re looking for additional help with external business or crisis communications, contact us today.

David Tanklefsky is a senior account director at The Castle Group. He can be reached at

The Castle Group, Senior Account Director, Public Relations, David Tanklefsky
Written By: David Tanklefsky


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