When and how to speak out, according to these execs

Consumers expect companies to have a purpose—and many leaders struggle with striking the right tone.

Companies should speak out on sensitive social issues, current and former executives from Meta, Mattel, Deloitte, and Pinterest said during a panel at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. on Monday.

Leaders’ hesitation can be understandable in light of potential backlash. But with the right approach, taking a stand can lead to a stronger business. The executives gave advice on when to speak out and gave examples from their own experiences running top companies.

Mattel leaned into female empowerment with Barbie

Leadership should first decide and focus on what their companies stand for, said Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s executive vice president and chief brand officer.

“We want to advocate for certain things; we don’t want to agitate,” McKnight said, explaining her company’s approach when speaking out on cultural issues and current events.

McKnight pointed to the Barbie brand, which even before this summer’s blockbuster opening, stood for female empowerment.

“Any conversation we’re going to engage with, has to be in service of that,” she said. 

“We’ve got to think through implications, unintended consequences, but at the same time,” McKnight continued, “we have to reinforce our position.” She noted that this is especially true, and complicated, for those doing business in the U.S., likely a testament to the growing polarization of the country. 

An audience member asked McKnight about a scene in Barbie, which she called endearing and authentic, that showed Mattel’s executive staff as an all-male crew.

“It was a big discussion,” McKnight answered. “We appreciate that Mattel had to be the big bad corporation; we had to be the patriarchy. And so, we decided that’s fair because certainly it is still out there….We knew it was exaggerated. We felt even better when Will Ferrell was cast.”

Pinterest navigated racial unrest during a pandemic

Pinterest’s former chief public affairs and sustainability officer, LeMia Jenkins Thompson, started her job in the middle of the pandemic and escalating racial unrest.

Employees at the company pushed for Pinterest to say something, and do something, but at the time there was no matrix, or decision making tree. Simply put, there was no rulebook on when, or how, to comment on things that were shaking up the nation, and the world.

Jenkins Thompson worked closely with her team to align on company values.

“What are the core values of the company, and what is it that we are going to speak on, and what are we not going to speak on?” She said, in explaining their process.

In Pinterest’s case, that meant looking at whether a certain event or cultural issue directly impacts its business, if it’s in a country or state that the company operates in, if it correlates with one of the company’s values. Now that Pinterest has that tree, she said, it’s been very helpful in the decision making process, particularly among company executives. 

Meta and Mark Zuckerberg embrace open dialogue

At Meta, Campbell Brown, who serves as the company’s vice president of global media partnerships, said its founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg hosts regular, and open, Q&A sessions about topics, or events of interest.

“At least if you disagree, we are giving space for people to have the conversation,” Brown said. “And, we have been through ups and downs over the last few years, and having that forum has been so critical.”

Deloitte hosts forums to inform employees

Deloitte’s global and U.S. chief marketing officer, Suzanne Kounkel, echoed Brown, adding that her executive team has a forum “to talk and make sure that our people knew how those decisions were being made.”

Kounkel explained that it’s important that employees know how these decisions are made. Even though not everyone will agree on the ultimate decision, they’ll better understand how it came about. She highlighted a study that revealed customers want to reward organizations that share their values and are willing to take a stance.

“I do think really staying true to who you are, and the issues that you can make a difference on, and you’re willing to do what it takes…I was saying that if it doesn’t hurt a little, or it’s not inconvenient, you’re probably not taking a stance,” Kounkel said. 

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