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The evolving embrace of Purpose: C-suite execs say their companies are investing in DEI, but say it’s too risky to take societal stances

by | May 1, 2024 | Public Relations

It wasn’t long ago that brand leaders and communicators were hearing consumers say they wanted to see brands and businesses show us what societal issues they truly cared about by speaking out on the positions they supported, and brands reluctantly accepted the challenge, even though the risks were obvious and the benefits weren’t all that clear, no matter which viewpoint they backed. Consumers haven’t necessarily backed off on those demands, but new research from executive women network Chief finds that many leaders have now chosen to stay silent, which has seemed like the right move all along despite the clatter, especially on more divisive hot-button issues. 

But the more important issues where a brand’s position makes a difference, such as sustainability support, continue to drive business strategy—and consumer behavior. One such issue is diversity, equity and inclusion, and the group’s recent New Era of Leadership report also reveals the perspectives of C-suite executives on investing in DEI, which some reporting would have you think is dwindling. But is it?

brand purpose mandate

“This data touches on two areas that have grown in importance in recent years,” said Carolyn Childers, co-founder and CEO of Chief, in a news release. “It’s proven that investing in DEI is good for business and I’m heartened that the majority of executives remain steadfast in their commitment, with many planning to do even more this year.”

Executives are still investing in DEI, and view it as a crucial leadership capability

Despite the wave of headlines about companies scaling back their DEI programs, an overwhelming majority of execs remain committed to investing in DEI initiatives. A significant proportion of executives also view DEI as a crucial capability for C-Suite leadership.

  • 80 percent of executives say they are still investing in DEI initiatives at their company.
  • Only 20 percent of companies plan to cut back or eliminate DEI initiatives in 2024.
  • Despite some paring back, 36 percent plan to continue with their current initiatives at the same level, and 44 percent plan to ramp up existing initiatives or develop new ones.
  • Two in five executives place understanding and promoting diversity, inclusion, and access among the most important leadership capabilities for the C-suite in 2024.

brand purpose mandate

C-suite executives say speaking out is more risky than staying silent

From racial equity, to geopolitics, to gun control, to abortion rights, there’s no shortage of political and social issues that executives feel pressured to address. And it’s a lose-lose situation for executives—87 percent of executives believe taking a public stance on a social issue is riskier than staying silent.

  • Nearly all C-suite leaders (9 in 10) are under pressure from stakeholders to take (or not take) a public stand on current issues.
  • The pressure comes from three angles:
    • External voices such as the public, customers, and community leaders (73 percent),
    • Internal stakeholders such as employees and shareholders (60 percent), and
    • Company leadership, including the values of the leadership team and the board of directors (58 percent).
  • Customer, employee, and shareholder expectations hold greater influence (47 percent) in shaping a company’s decision to make a public stance than its own leadership or company values.

brand purpose mandate

“When we looked at how executives feel about taking—or not taking—a stand on social issues, it was not surprising to see their hesitance, especially in an election year,” said Childers. “The tension between growing stakeholder expectations and the risk executives are feeling reinforces how crucial it is for companies to know their values and act in accordance with them.”

brand purpose mandate

Download the full report here.

The report is based on a survey of 600 U.S. C-suite executives at companies with a minimum of 500 employees.

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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