CEO activism in 2018: Americans think CEOs must speak out to defend company values

by | Jul 31, 2018 | Public Relations

It’s a decidedly socially conscious and outspoken age for businesses and brands, and consumers and employees alike—especially younger sectors like millennials and Gen Zers—want companies and their CEOs to take a stand on issues that are important to them because they feel these “brand stands” have true societal purpose and impact.

In fact, significantly more Americans in 2018 believe that CEOs who speak out on hotly debated current issues influence the decisions and actions of government (48 percent vs. 38 percent in 2017), according to a new report from Weber Shandwick, CEO Activism in 2018: The Purposeful CEO, in partnership with KRC Research.

This study follows The Dawn of CEO Activism (2016) and High Noon in the C-Suite (2017), among the first reports that identified the risks and rewards for companies when their chief executives speak out on hot-button issues.

“Over the past 12 months, it has become more common for leaders of companies to speak out on policy issues, and the American public is paying attention to this new brand of CEO activism,” said Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick, in a news release. “Americans are beginning to believe that such actions can influence government policy. While most CEOs are not accustomed to participating in the political arena, they and their companies need to be prepared to navigate these uncharted waters, whether they remain silent or not.”

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Democrats and Republicans alike see CEO activism as legislatively influential (54 percent and 51 percent, respectively), although Independents are less convinced (28 percent).

CEOs must lobby for their company values

A large segment of the American population (77 percent) agree with the statement, “CEOs need to speak out when their company’s values are violated or threatened.” There is a significant gender gap on this sentiment, with 81 percent of women agreeing vs. 74 percent of men.

CEO activism in 2018: Americans think CEOs must speak out to defend company values

*Significantly higher than comparative sub-group

When it comes to employee impact, one-third of Americans who are employed (31 percent) report they would be more loyal to their organization if the CEO took a public position on a hotly debated current issue, overshadowing those who would be less loyal (23 percent). The largest segment (46 percent), however, is undecided, which indicates that what issue a CEO decides to speak out on needs to be carefully vetted to understand employee sentiment.

CEO activism in 2018: Americans think CEOs must speak out to defend company values

CEO activism increasingly impacts buying behavior

CEO activism positively affects U.S. consumer purchase decisions, according to the survey. Nearly half of consumers (46 percent) say they would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue they agree with and only 10 percent say they would be less likely. This rate of positivity has increased significantly since 2017 (46 percent vs. 38 percent).

Americans speak out on appropriate CEO activism issues 

The survey presented respondents with a list of 19 current issues and asked them to identify which ones they feel CEOs and other business leaders should speak out and express their opinion on. The top six issues, as chosen by respondents, are decidedly issues of workplace management:

  1. Jobs skills/training (80 percent)
  2. Equal pay in the workplace (79 percent)
  3. Sexual harassment (77 percent)
  4. Privacy and personal data protection (71 percent)
  5. Healthcare coverage (70 percent)
  6. Maternity/paternity leave (69 percent)

CEO activism in 2018: Americans think CEOs must speak out to defend company values

The issues least desirable for CEOs to speak out on are the legalization of marijuana (26 percent) and abortion at a mere 14 percent.

There are sizable variances by demographic group. The issues with the widest gaps are:

  • By Gender: Women are 11 percentage points more likely than men to believe CEOs should speak out on gun control (40 percent vs. 29 percent, respectively)
  • By Generation: Younger Millennials (22 to 29 years old) differ widely from Older Millennials (30 to 37 years old) on several issues. Most notably they are more likely to feel CEOs should speak out on LGBTQ rights (46 percent vs. 29 percent), gender equality (70 percent vs. 54 percent) and nationalism (42 percent vs. 28 percent)
  • By Race: African Americans differ from Caucasians and/or Hispanics on most issues. The biggest gaps in the issues that African Americans believe CEOs should speak out on are race relations (69 percent vs. 43 percent and 46 percent, respectively) and immigration/refugees (58 percent vs. 35 percent and 37 percent).

CEO activism in 2018: Americans think CEOs must speak out to defend company values

A guide to CEO activism in the era of public service

CEOs speaking out on hotly debated current issues is quickly becoming a new role that they and their boards and management teams must address. CEO Activism in 2018: The Purposeful CEO found key markers of this important responsibility to be rising rapidly. Americans see CEO activists as purpose-driven – affecting government, defending workplace values & being the new public servants. Weber Shandwick recommends CEOs and their companies consider the following guidelines when approaching activism:

  • Accept the expectation that CEOs have a role to play in governmental policy. Decide sooner rather than later whether your company wants its CEO speaking out on policy matters. Involve government affairs personnel. The general public is beginning to expect more from CEOs during these volatile times which are only getting more turbulent and polarized as mid-term elections fast approach in November 2018.
  • Make your company values crystal clear, both internally and externally. You may have to stand up for your corporate values as employees, customers, investors, and others place pressure on those at the top. CEO activism would have maximum effect, and less risk of criticism, if it is obvious that the stance is in line with company values or principles. CEOs and companies are finding that they need to be accountable to their values or else.
  • Make sure your own house is in order. Before speaking out on a policy or societal matter, check to see that there will be no surprises in who your company does business with when it comes to government entities.
  • Employee loyalty is being tested in new ways. With nearly half of employees surveyed unsure whether they would feel more loyal or less loyal in the event of a CEO activist event, companies need to be firmly tapped into the pulse of employee sentiment on societal issues before they make the wrong move.
  • Recognize that some issues are “safer” than others. Going outside the realm of workplace management issues, such as job skills and training, can become risky but may be necessary to address if company values collide with political or societal issues.

CEO activism in 2018: Americans think CEOs must speak out to defend company values

“Our newest wave of research on CEO activism shows the perceived growing influence of CEOs on the government according to the American public,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist of Weber Shandwick. “With mid-term elections nearing, companies can no longer ignore the mantle that Americans are placing on CEOs to be involved and better public servants.”

Read the full report here.

Weber Shandwick partnered with KRC Research in May 2018 to conduct an online survey of 1,006 U.S. adults 18 years of age and older, representing the general population of America. It is the third annual wave in of our CEO Activism research. The survey describes CEO activism to respondents as follows: “In the past year or so, some chief executive officers (CEOs, or top leaders of companies) have spoken out publicly and taken a stand on controversial issues. For example, CEOs have spoken up about social, political and environmental issues such as climate change, income fairness, same-sex marriage, immigration, gun control and discrimination.”

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter


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