The Bully Pulpit

by Karen Topakian


When Meryl Streep accepted a lifetime achievement award last month at the Golden Globes, she turned her moment in the spotlight into a bully pulpit. By following Marlon Brando’s famous 1973 effort to shine a light on the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans, she championed a cause for which she felt strongly – our incoming president’s prejudiced policies and practices particularly towards people with disabilities and immigrants.

As an award-winning actress, she had nothing to lose. Her fans would still adore her and her political allies would support her. She wouldn’t suffer job loss or ostracism. Whether she “did the math” or not, she knew she had created a win-win situation.

Her critics however, felt the Golden Globes was neither the time nor the place for airing political statements.

In the coming weeks and months we may see other people follow Meryl’s lead. The same criticism may follow.

Many people, including you, may want to speak out and speak up but may lack the protection of international fame and achievement. Should you do it anyway? Should you grab the mic or should you remain silent and avoid risking potential ostracism and peer rebuke?

If you have the stage and want to take a stand, prepare yourself by asking these questions.

  1. Why were you invited to speak?

Were you invited to speak about some aspect of the current administration? If so, then assume carte blanche to trumpet your thoughts, ideas and concerns.

Were you invited to introduce someone else or were you invited for a totally unrelated reason, for example, to address ways to introduce Do It Yourself (DIY) projects into afterschool programs? If so, then seizing the bully pulpit may prove tangential and off-putting to your audience.

  1. Why are you making this speech or presentation? What’s your goal? What do you hope to accomplish?

If you’re speaking about climate change’s effects on coastal land development, go ahead and rip into the Trump administration’s disregard for science and plans to shred the Paris Accords. As an expert, you know what such folly will reek. Don’t hold back. Your audience wants to hear the truth about property loss and destruction from sea level rising and you’re the one to deliver.

If you’re invited to talk about the latest trends in online fundraising messaging but burn with desire to address Trump’s latest attack on immigrants, give examples of the new trends by assigning them to a fictional immigrant rights or civil liberties protection organization.

If you’re invited to speak about the arts’ impact on early childhood learning, include the role that government funding can and should play in providing access to the arts for all ages. Address the new administration’s plans to defund arts programs and its impact on children’s growth and development

Even if you’re not an expert in the administration’s policies, you have a right to speak out, as did Meryl and others at the Grammys. Mike Farrell, the actor on M*A*S*H and a champion of abolishing the death penalty, once told me he may be an actor but he’s also a citizen who has a right to speak his mind. I would urge anyone in the limelight to not shy away from speaking truth to power whenever and wherever possible.

To quote the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (wo)men to do nothing.”

  1. Who is in your audience? Will they applaud or boo?

If you’re speaking to the converted – civil rights attorneys, environmentalists, immigrant rights advocates,… – they will applaud. (It’s the rare Trump supporter that does this kind of work.) Use your time to provide new information and insights into the effect the administration has and will have on your clients and the planet.

If you don’t know your audience members’ political persuasions, you will need to decide whether you want to risk potentially alienating them, ostracizing your co-workers or limiting your professional career. You may lose clients. You may open yourself up to a world of hurt or you may gain new clients and new opportunities. Ask yourself if this is the right moment to share your beliefs even if you weren’t asked expressly to do so.

If you don’t care about alienating your audience or the people who invited you – then let her rip. Unleash it all in a cogent, intelligent, organized manner. And remember to use humor.

Also please avoid demonizing your audience or people who may agree with the current administration, for example don’t say people who think like that are assholes or bigots.

  1. Should you let the folks who invited you know that you will or may reference the incoming administration in your remarks?

You may want to inform the folks who invited about your intention to include your opinions, thoughts and facts about the incoming administration’s policies into your presentation as it relates to your topic. If they caution you against doing so, then you must decide for yourself if it’s worth raising it or not. If there’s a Q&A section to your presentation, consider prepping a colleague to inquire about the policies and use that as an entry into the topic.

Use your own judgment, professional reputation and political climate to determine your course of action. Just remember, the audience members will see you as a leader and an expert and as such, you have a responsibility to act like one.

Obviously, we do not live in Meryl Streep’s stratosphere, but we do have the right to speak our minds. Weigh the risks and benefits before you grab the mic.