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Societal Acumen: What Every Communications Leader Needs Today

Protestors during BLM movement

It has been one of the surest ways for a Communications professional to reach the C Suite: Show the kind of business acumen and crisis management skills that puts CEOs, CFOs, and boardrooms at ease.

However, 2020 has demanded something different. We’ll call it “Societal Acumen” – the ability to discern what today’s societal currents mean for businesses and their stakeholders. Communications professionals have never needed it more.

The simple reason: Business is no longer just about business, and this is demanding Communications professionals who are intuitive, observant, learned, and empathetic enough to guide clients through a world today where the convergence of business and social issues is now an everyday occurrence.

Consider the events of June. Societal Acumen became an indispensable talent as social unrest filled streets, social media feeds, and workplace conversations, and reenergized movements (Black Lives Matter) and spawned new ones (#StopHateforProfit). As events unfolded, this required Communications pros to size up the cultural and business implications of the moment, as their clients, facing rising stakeholder expectations, confronted a host of thorny questions.

Should we say we support the protests? If so, should we say, “Black Lives Matter”? If we speak up, will we alienate our customers, employees, or investors? What boycotts should we join? What actions should we take?

Fortunately, hundreds of corporations and brands pushed past those concerns to show unprecedented and unequivocal support for the civil and human rights issues being raised by June’s developments. CEOs and their Communications counselors no doubt appreciated how broad and powerful these latest societal currents had become, and how they resonated deeply with many consumers and co-workers.

The business and Communications and Public Relations communities likely also recognized – as they had done with COVID-19, climate change, and other social issues, such as gay marriage rights – that it was another moment to lead beyond their bottom lines. As trust in government and media has diminished, employees and consumers have come to expect the private sector to address the issues affecting their everyday lives, and this would include the social issues June called to the world’s attention.

From the protests to the boycotts, the most effective Communications pros likely used their Societal Acumen to help businesses and brands understand what protesters meant by “systemic racism,” why invoking “All Lives Matter” would offend, and why they shouldn’t expect high praise for posting black squares on Instagram. With sensitivity and an appreciation for context, these Communications leaders helped companies understand the importance of affirming Black lives do matter, and why deeds must now reflect their words.

The perspective, empathy and listening ultimately led to a dramatic and faster-than-expected “woke” moment for Corporate America, as dozens of companies last month began to mark the historical significance of Juneteenth – the June 19th date marking the end of slavery in America – that before this year infrequently got mentioned in our popular culture. This year, many companies gave employees a paid day off to celebrate.

Surely, there are those who long for a return to the days when business and societal issues were tidily compartmentalized; they made for easier days at the office. But don’t expect those days to return. Today’s court of public opinion is too energized, too engaged, and too influential for a generation accustomed to launching movements with a tweet.

The world needs leaders with the kind of Societal Acumen to understand how cultural, economic, and political forces form and move. This doesn’t mean all CEOs and Chief Communications Officers need to have liberal arts degrees, but rather they should have a greater curiosity about the world around them, about how others live, and how seemingly unrelated events and trends, and moments, have everything to do with their bottom line success and reputations.