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Jen Psaki on when and how leaders should tackle tough political topics at work

Leaders need to keep their hands on the wheel during a politically charged election year and communicate in a way that builds and preserves trust.

  • Why it matters: That includes knowing when to speak up and when to stay silent — because saying the wrong thing can ruin your org’s reputation, but not speaking up when necessary can have the same effect. 

"I'm not a believer that every company and organization needs to weigh in on every issue," said Jen Psaki, host of "Inside with Jen Psaki" on MSNBC and former White House Press Secretary at a recent Axios HQ event.

When to wade into tough topics 

One thing a lot of people struggle with is knowing “how to talk about the elephant in the room,” Jen said. “That's not even a political statement. It's acknowledging when there is a tricky issue that you need to discuss.”

You need to have an open and honest conversation with the leaders in your company about whether an issue is impacting the audience you're trying to speak to. Decide if you need to address it internally or externally from there.

Ask yourself these questions before wading into the fray:

  • What is your brand? Ensure speaking to the issue aligns with your organization's goals and mission.
  • Does the issue conflict with what you're trying to be known as? If so, you may need to defend your reputation before you lose trust.
  • Does the issue impact your product or org? If so, it might be worth speaking up so employees know where you stand and how you plan to move forward.

When your organization’s reputation is on the line, it’s important to take a step back and make sure the issue is one worth addressing in order to maintain trust, stay in-line with your mission, and preserve your company culture and objectives.

How to speak to tough topics

Once you’ve decided to address an issue, you need to strategically plan what you’ll say that’s in line with your organization’s mission and stance on the issue. To develop a plan that will have you knowing what to say, follow these tips:

  • Be an expert. Do your research and know what you're talking about. The more of an expert you are, the easier it will be to understand what's going on, speak to the issue at hand, and answer any questions.
  • Prep out loud. Have colleagues ask you questions so you can practice answers out loud to see how they sound, to see if you’re getting at the core of the issue, and to make sure it still sounds like you.
  • Pass the “mother-in-law test:” Don’t get so lost in corporate buzzwords and jargon that you lose your audience. Keep it simple and understandable, like your mother-in-law could understand. 

“It's preparation. It's preparation. It's preparation,” Jen said about what your communications success comes down to. Make sure you’re knowledgeable about the topic and can easily speak to all parts of it. Once that happens, you’ll be ready to tackle the issue head on. 

When things go wrong

Even the best laid plan can go awry when leaders are speaking off the cuff. Sometimes they say the wrong thing or fail to communicate effectively, putting the organization’s reputation on the line. When this happens, the key to fixing it means acting quickly to mitigate the damage and regain lost trust. 

Jen's playbook for when leaders get it wrong:

  • Never lie. That will only dig the hole deeper. Stick to the truth. Period.
  • Get info out as quickly as possible. Don't waste time. Move quickly, and preferably, have a crisis plan in place before you need it.
  • If you mess up, fess up. Acknowledging you made a mistake and are working on doing better goes a long way in taking "a little venom out of the people who are coming at you" Jen says.
  • Don't quit communicating. Don't go radio silent because something went amiss. Instead, get out there and address the issue.
  • Don't assume you'll get it right the first time. You may not get your response right on the first try, or it may not take. Adapt as necessary. 

The bottom line: A strong communications plan starts by being prepared. Know what issues are worth speaking on and how they need to be addressed. Build trust by being open, honest, and timely in your responses. Only then will your audience trust you when addressing tough topics. 

Go deeper: 2024 trends report: 8 key priorities for execs and comms leaders

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