Business in a bind over messaging on Israel-Hamas war


After Hamas’s atrocities in Israel and the state’s retaliation in the Gaza Strip, executives at companies including Goldman Sachs and Google emailed staff and made public statements expressing sympathy for victims. Other business leaders chose to say nothing at all.

Both responses risked a backlash. Some companies have been criticised for “picking a side”; others condemned for their silence.

Keniro Miller, a human resources professional at French luxury company Cartier, was among the executives protesting against their companies’ failure to make a comment. “Saying nothing is complicit,” he wrote on LinkedIn. Richemont, Cartier’s parent company, which has chosen not to publicly make a statement, did not respond to requests for comment. 

In recent years staff and customers have put pressure on businesses to speak out about political issues — from trans issues and abortion rights to Black Lives Matter — to underline their corporate values. But criticism of corporate responses to the Israel-Hamas conflict shows how fraught with risk reacting to geopolitical crises has become for business executives and their employers.

“The last 10 days have been a pendulum swing moment for CEO communication,” said Dominic Reynolds at public relations company Kekst CNC. “Since the pandemic, the direction of travel has been towards CEOs taking positions on social issues that matter to their customers or their people, even if there’s no link to business operations. We’ve observed that trend go into reverse this month.

“Our clients are anxious to show caution around this conflict, understanding that perceptions can be shifted by superfine nuances of language and tone.”

This is a big shift from last year, when Russia invaded Ukraine and companies from healthcare group Johnson & Johnson to management consultancy Bain, spoke out. “Clients were asking us what they should say, where and when,” added Reynolds. “This week, they’ve been asking if they should say anything at all.”

‘No way a company has the expertise’

The war erupted after Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, broke through security barriers around Gaza and launched a multipronged assault on southern Israel, killing more than 1,400 people and taking about 212 hostages, according to Israeli officials. Israel responded by launching an offensive on hemmed-in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas and home to 2.3mn people. More than 4,600 people have been killed in Israel’s bombardment of the coastal strip, according to Palestinian health officials.  

One media company boss said business leaders he had spoken to were tying themselves in knots about how to talk about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, given its decades-long history and complexity. Executives were also asking whether the word “terrorism” should be used in any internal and external communications about the issue. “This is like a geopolitical Roe vs Wade for corporates,” said the executive, referring to the controversial landmark US supreme court ruling that protected the right to have an abortion.

Bo Young Lee, who was chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Uber during the 2021 war between Israel and Hamas, added that there was “no benefit” for companies to rush out statements. “It takes courage on the part of employers to take a bit of time [and] say we really need to understand the situation.” Now president of non-profit group Advisory, which seeks to advance women in tech, she noted that in a situation as complex as Middle East politics: “there is no way a company has the expertise.” It requires talking to those who do.

The priority, according to Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult International Business School, is to focus on the immediate physical, emotional and mental health of stakeholders and employees. “Look after them rather than immediately turning all your attention to the outward facing statements . . . Your primary responsibility is to the impact on people who you have a direct relationship with.”

Closeup of protesters holding banners saying ‘massacre in israel’ and one with pictures of the hostages
Protesters in New York last week called for the release of Israeli hostages being held by Hamas © Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg
A protester wearing a hijab holds a sign saying ‘I stand with Palestine’
A pro-Palestinian rally in Rome this month demanding an end to the bombardment of Gaza © Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

For businesses with operations in the region, the priority has been to reassure the workforce. “My deepest condolences are with all those killed and impacted,” wrote Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft. “Our focus remains on ensuring the safety of our employees and their families.”

Many of the companies without regional staff have kept quiet, in line with guidance from corporate advisers. “We advise clients to engage on political and social issues based on the relevance to their organisation and the severity of their impact on the company,” said US corporate adviser Penta Group. Its analysis showed that companies should have a process for deciding what to speak up on. Increasingly boards are getting involved.

Asana, the US work management software company, which does not have a history of issuing public statements, has chosen again not to speak out. Chief operating officer Anne Raimondi said the company’s guiding principle was: “What problem are we trying to solve?” It has emphasised providing practical and emotional support to customers and staff with family in Israel and Palestine.

Picking a side

Deciding to act or not can leave a management team open to allegations of bias and discrimination. Companies do not want to be condemned for choosing one side over another. 

Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai followed up his first email to staff expressing sadness for “the terrorist attacks [in Israel]” with another to address the mounting humanitarian crisis and death toll in Gaza. 

When McDonald’s restaurants in Israel donated meals to the country’s military, their branches in the Middle East issued statements disassociating themselves from the Israeli franchise and promised aid to Gaza.

Meanwhile, global accounting firm Deloitte posted a LinkedIn message, signed by the leaders of its Israeli business, expressing “support for our fellow citizens on the home front and those on the front lines”. Dozens of employees from elsewhere in the region sought to disassociate themselves. Mutasem Dajani, chief executive of Deloitte Middle East, then condemned “needless human suffering” and highlighted support of humanitarian efforts for Palestinians.

Some commentators stressed that companies needed to be consistent — if they have made a statement on Ukraine, they should do so for Israel and Palestine, for example.  

Lee disagrees. “The unfortunate thing about our world now is that something is happening every single day. This idea of consistency is fundamentally flawed . . . a company would be making a statement every single day. Make a statement when it impacts your business, you have something to say about it and you can have a meaningful impact.” 

Technology companies with a large presence in India, have not commented on sectarian violence, she pointed out.

Rising employee activism

Some bosses worry about conflict within the office and how any statements from the top of the company could affect worker relations, particularly given the recent trend for individuals to feel comfortable bringing more of their personal life into the workplace.

One lawyer at a magic circle legal firm said they had received more inquiries since the Israel-Hamas conflict from employers concerned about managing staff with different views and avoiding issues escalating into misconduct. Citibank said it had fired an employee who had posted an antisemitic comment on social media.  

The workforce challenge on geopolitical issues, said a former pharmaceutical executive who worked on diversity across global teams, is that “there will be a large group of employees who will only hear what they want to hear. People have entrenched views.” The difficulty, he added, is that the majority are a silent majority. “The vocal minorities dominate. How do you create forums where you bring employees back together again? [The risk is] you create greater dysfunction across the team.”

In one example of how taking a stand can fuel internal tensions, coffee group Starbucks sued its workers union this week, claiming a pro-Palestinian social media post from a union account angered hundreds of customers and tarnished the company’s reputation. 

Supporters of Israel and Palestine face off in New York this month. The Israel-Hamas conflict shows how fraught with risk responding to geopolitical crises has become for companies © Bryan R.Smith/AFP/Getty Images

Some companies had already taken a hardline approach to political positions among employees. During in the pandemic, the US software company, 37signals, imposed a policy that it would not “weigh in on politics publicly, outside of topics directly related to our business”. It also banned political discussion on work channels, which sparked accusations of censorship — about a third of the staff left.

Reitz, the co-author of Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard, said an employer’s past behaviour might come back to bite them. “The sheer scale of suffering must be foremost in our hearts and minds . . . If employees know you to be authentic and genuinely caring then they will probably read your words that way. If they know you to be . . .[focused] solely on business performance and reliant on a big comms department to tell you precisely what to say in a carefully staged manner, then they probably won’t.”

She added that the challenge of how to respond to the current Israel-Palestine situation highlighted the difficulty in trying to build a “single corporate narrative in a multipolar, intensely interconnected media landscape”.

“What speaks well to one group of stakeholders and employees in one part of the world, will land badly with other groups.”

However she also warned against saying something for the sake of it. “Bland” public relations material will only “piss everybody off”.

Additional reporting by Daniel Thomas, Stephen Gandel and Stephen Foley


Source link