Fraser Seitel
Fraser Seitel

Wonder of wonders, Harvard apparently isn’t that dumb after all.

In May, the beleaguered bastion of boycotting students, billion-dollar endowments and bewildered leaders finally got it right.

After several months of ducking and weaving in the wake of fumbling statements by its now-former President on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Harvard announced it would accept the recommendations of a faculty committee and no longer take public positions on matters not “relevant to the core functions of the university.”

“Harvard,” explained law professor Noah Feldman, who co-chaired the faculty committee, “isn’t a government. It shouldn’t have a foreign policy or a domestic policy.”

And he’s right.

Harvard’s primary mission is to educate students, exposing them to freedom of expression and inquiry and the promotion of lifelong learning. And just like JPMorgan Chase or Microsoft or McDonald’s or the Mayo Clinic, organizations like Harvard must deal with a multitude of publics with conflicting viewpoints on multiple issues.

And while absolutists like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or activist students or young employees may not like it, the most sensible policy is one of “institutional neutrality”—where organizations refrain from getting involved in social or political issues that have little bearing on an organization’s specific interests or primary pursuits.

Harvard, of course, opened this Pandora’s Box after the October 6 Hamas attack on Israel, when the university’s then-President Claudine Gay listened to bad public relations advice from law firm WilmerHale and tried to kabuki dance her way through a Congressional committee’s inquiry as to whether “calling for the genocide of Jews violated Harvard’s rules on bullying.”

Gay deflected. Harvard was chastised. And the university proceeded to let loose a string of statements attempting to placate all sides, ultimately resulting in the firing of its President, the appointment of the faculty committee and the adoption of the “institutional neutrality” policy.

Despite sounding wimpy, remaining “neutral” is no place for the faint of heart. (See ousted Disney CEO Robert Chapek’s fatal attempt to tiptoe past Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.)

Consider the tough stance taken by NYU Langone Health in May, when a star nurse used her award acceptance speech to label Israel’s Gaza attack a “genocide.” When the nurse was fired a few weeks later, an NYU Langone spokesman said she had previously been advised “not to bring her views on this divisive and charged issue into the workplace.”

And that’s the point.

Most of today’s hot-button issues—from social injustice and immigration to COVID vaccines and women’s reproductive rights—are “charged” or at least nuanced, with loud advocates and detractors on every side. And most Americans, according to the most recent Gallup research, are split right down the middle—48 percent yea, 52 percent nay—on whether business organizations should take political or social stances on such issues.

And while the temptation is great to get on the “right side” of a social issue, smart organizations must think twice before sticking their necks out. That’s a hard lesson that everyone from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania to Target and Bud Light have learned the hard way.

So, how should a company or school or not-for-profit or any other institution assess social issue engagement? Here’s the short answer.

If your organization has a history of speaking out on certain issues and a constituency that expects you to stand up, then by all means go for it. But … if the vast majority of publics that matter most to your firm—customers, employees, students, parents, investors, board members, etc.—aren’t directly affected or don’t feel strongly about the issue in question, then beware of getting involved.

As prominent public relations author and professor Kara Alaimo has warned organizations tempted to leap into the social-issue fray without considering the consequences, “If you don’t have a history of activism on identity issues, it actually tends to result in reputational damage.”

And that’s not good public relations, no matter how virtuous the viewpoint or sincere the sentiment.


Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He’s the author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation” and “Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at [email protected].