Who asked you anyway? What's at stake when executives remark on other executives' decisions

When a divisive issue becomes the center of media attention, how does a CEO know when to take a stance, or when to keep quiet?

Last week, the FBI ordered Apple to unlock the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan, one of the Dec. 2 San Bernardino terrorist attackers, saying accessing the encrypted data is central to the investigation. However, Apple CEO Tim Cook said he would not comply with the order, citing customer security concerns.

"Opposing this order is not something we take lightly," Mr. Cook wrote in an open letter posted to Apple's website. "We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government."

The dispute between the government and Apple has prompted strong reactions from those within and outside of the tech world. The number of business leaders and CEOs who have taken a public stance on the matter raises an interesting question about when executives should — or perhaps shouldn't — voice an opinion on a divisive issue.

Many leaders within the tech industry have emerged as supporters of Mr. Cook's decision. Among them are Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerburg. Prominent figures in other industries have also publicly backed Apple, such as Edward Snowden, former NSA contractor and privacy whistleblower; businessman and Shark Tank personality Mark Cuban; The New York Times editorial board, Ford CEO Mark Fields; and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

But he has his fair share of critics, too. "To think that Apple won't allow us to get into her cellphone? Who do they think they are?" Donald Trump, GOP presidential frontrunner, said during an interview on Fox and Friends.

Even Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, who is considered one of the founding fathers of contemporary technology, spoke out against Mr. Cook's decision in the matter. He said technology companies have an obligation to work with law enforcement in terrorism investigations.

"This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information," said Mr. Gates, according to The Financial Times. "They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case."

We asked a communications expert about when CEOs should be expected to act as a peanut gallery and either approve or disapprove of their peers' actions. His two cents? The more important the issue is to a company's business and brand, such as in the case with Apple, the clearer the need is for its leaders to speak out.

"When social or political issues have a significant impact on a company's business, as the question of privacy does in the digital world, a company and its leader have a responsibility to their key stakeholders — employees, investors, business partners — to articulate a position that protects and enhances the company's business and brand," says Vince Galloro, senior executive advisor at Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, a strategic healthcare communications firm.

However when it comes to other companies and leaders picking sides, taking a stance on a divisive issue should be evaluated carefully. According to Mr. Galloro, voicing an opinion must be weighed against the risk of alienating potential political allies or even customers.

For instance, in a consumer business, taking a strong stance on divisive social issues is reasonable — a significant proportion of the company's customers may care enough about the issue for the company's stance to affect its brand. However, in a business-to-business market, clients are likely not interested in the CEO's stance on a given issue. They are more likely interested in whether the company makes its products sustainably and is connected to vendors and suppliers abiding by labor and environmental standards.

What should you, a CEO, do when a reporter asks you about another CEO's actions? Mr. Galloro has some insight.

"Any CEO should approach this situation with the thought that he or she could be the one in the line of fire next week. When you are composing your thoughts, put yourself in the shoes of your peer and think about how you would react to someone at another company commenting on a situation with only partial information."

While it may make sense for a leader of a company to comment on another leader's decision if both companies are in the same industry — such as Bill Gates' or Sundar Pichai taking a stance on Apple's issue — the case for leaders of businesses unrelated to the conflict choosing sides is much weaker, according to Mr. Galloro.

CEOs who come forward to support or denounce another company or executive in the midst of a crisis run a serious risk of implicating themselves or their companies down the road. "That is a major risk to consider when weighing whether to comment on a hot issue, especially if you are inclined to criticize the company or CEO who is under fire," says Mr. Galloro. "Commenting in this way draws attention to your company, and the attention can be either good or bad."

"It's the pot calling the kettle back," says Mr. Galloro. "You might find that you have boosted your brand recognition — but not in a good way."

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