Why Are CEOs Going Silent on National Tragedies?

March 20, 2023

Nearly three years ago, the murder of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed sparked a national conversation on racism. Law firm and business leaders who had never publicly discussed social or racial justice issues were speaking out.

Many law firm leaders issued public statements denouncing racism and committing to addressing parity for underrepresented groups. Some firms championed DEI initiatives to foster more inclusive cultures, implemented policies to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce or financially supported organizations working toward local and national policy changes. Law.com even declared, “George Floyd’s Death Ushered in a New Era of Law Firm Activism and There’s No Going Back.”

Bad news: Two years later, business leaders have largely gone quiet.

Some are refraining from public pledges but continuing to communicate about equity issues internally. Others seem to have succumbed to amnesia. In some cases, actions speak louder than words: More than 300 DEI professionals have left corporate roles in the last six months, many laid off as part of cost-cutting measures. Or at least that is the official narrative. It’s also possible that the diminished media focus on these issues — and the backlash from conservatives — has led CEOs to decide it’s better to stay silent.

Just because it may not be quite as immediately advantageous for leaders to speak out on sensitive national issues, there are still plenty of reasons to do so, including old-fashioned integrity. (Remember, cutting DEI initiatives communicates something about your brand too — it is not a “neutral” position.) But it takes work to build credibility. As Steve Embry of TechLaw Crossroads notes, “When it comes to social issues, it’s hard to draw the line between taking a position because it’s clearly the right thing to do for the firm and taking a position” — and we’d add or not taking one — “because a substantial client demands it.”

Here’s how to approach comms on sensitive issues:

  1. Make communications decisions based on your firm’s values. Messaging should align with the firm’s guiding principles, ideally posted on your firm’s website. Including your values on the About Us page as part of the firm’s overall vision helps current and potential clients identify what the firm stands for.
  2. Consider the external reaction as well as the internal response. Gauging how a message will resonate externally is challenging. As Embry explains, “by taking a stand some clients applaud, law firms risk pissing off other clients who might disagree with those positions.” This applies internally too. And not speaking up may have consequences as well. If you’re silent on an issue, what message does that send to clients and employees?
  3. Develop a policy to ensure that your communications are consistent. Credibility comes from aligning your messaging to your values, and owning up when you fall short. Speaking out can be an opportunity to reinforce brand identity and strengthen your firm’s reputation. But you risk undermining your firm’s credibility by acting inconsistently, such as by celebrating Black History Month but ignoring LGBTQ History Month, for example.

Want to know more about how to communicate credibly about DEI issues? Check out our deep dive here, or ping us to set up time to talk. Our team has significant experience creating strategy and content that helps firms live up to their values without losing focus.