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Should CEOs engage in activism?

Stephanie Shi
Stephanie ShiSenior Communications Manager Asia Pacific
My current role leading communications and employee engagement in one of the most innovative, diverse and entrepreneurial companies gives me a front-row seat to how technology is shaping a better and more connected future. Over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to manage PR for some of the most respected technology, FMCG and hospitality companies brands in great agencies and in-house – and I am still having a great time. I am passionate about books and the power of reading to educate, inspire and connect. I am also learning to occasionally stop and smell the roses!

Follow me on Twitter @steffashee

Key elections in countries like the United States, France and South Korea have ushered in a new era of policy—and a new era of activism. But it’s not just private citizens who are taking to social media to express their views. More CEOs than ever are weighing in publicly on political issues ranging from immigration to the environment.

Take immigration policy, for example: When the United States government enacted an immigration ban in early 2017, global CEOs were quick to respond. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, took to social media and vowed to hire 10,000 refugees in Starbucks locations around the world. Google said, “We will continue to make our views on these issues known to leaders in Washington and elsewhere.” Also joining the critics of the new immigration policy were Elon Musk (SpaceX) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook).

But CEO activism isn’t reserved for American shores. In Singapore, leaders like Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group, have taken a public stance on gender equality in the workplace. Joshua Yim, CEO of Singapore’s Achieve Group, has joined other executives in championing gay-friendly workplaces. The recent presidential campaign in France brought strong opinions from CEOs on both sides who were concerned with how the candidates would impact the country’s business landscape.

Like it or not, we’re living in a highly political world. And that world is also highly connected, which provides more ways than ever for CEOs to join the conversation. The perfect storm of uncertain politics and instantly-accessible social platforms begs the question: Should CEOs get political? And perhaps more important, do they have a choice anymore?

The days of CEOs who stay neutral on policy issues are long gone. Here’s what savvy leaders should know about the risks, rewards and strategies for taking a public stance.


What shapes public perceptions of a business?


Before we talk about strategies for making a political statement, let’s discuss the psychology of public perception.  Not surprisingly, the forces that shape a public’s view of businesses varies across cultures. However, studies show that the world’s consumers share a surprising consensus on the role of a company’s handling of crisis.

To explore the issue, researchers at Weber Shandwick and KRC surveyed 1,050 senior executives and 2,100 consumers in 21 global markets. Their goal? To uncover what consumers actually expect from corporate brands. According to the study, the two biggest factors shaping how consumers feel about companies are what customers say about them and how they respond in times of crisis. Consumers ranked “how companies respond to controversial issues” as more important than what is said about the company in media, on their website, in advertising and by spokespeople.

Other key points from the Weber Shandwick and KRC research (including a second study specifically on CEO activism):

  • 85% of Millennials said they were influenced by a company’s reputation when seeking a new job.
  • 95% of executives and 77% of consumers across demographics said an employer’s reputation matters when choosing where to work.

When it comes to politics, the jury is still out about whether CEO activism is seen favourably among consumers. Of the study’s respondents, 20% said they weren’t in favour of companies speaking out on political issues. Roughly one-third said it “depends,” and 5% said they did not know whether a company should voice an opinion on controversial issues.


Key considerations for CEO activism


In a world where more CEOs are joining the public discourse, it’s often more difficult to be the one who doesn’t speak out than the one who does. However, spur of the moment responses can cause more harm than good and wipe away the potential positive impact of your statement in the first place. When choosing to get political or not to get political, weigh these key risks and rewards:

  1. CEO activism is not guaranteed to drive favourability
  2. CEO activism influences purchase intent
  3. CEO activism tests the strength of brand loyalty
  4. Millennials are more likely to support CEO activism
  5. Public support hinges upon the issue at hand and its perceived ties to the company

In short, CEOs shouldn’t underestimate the impact of their decision to voice a political view. Research shows that a CEO’s views can have a significant impact on his or her employees’ political leanings—and in the case of Apple’s Cook, even public opinion. Here are a few other questions that CEOs should ask themselves before supporting a political stance:

  • Does this issue have a direct impact on my industry, my customers and/or my partners?
  • Does taking a stance on this issue reinforce my business’ ethics and values?
  • Who do I run the risk of offending or alienating, and are they crucial to my business’ success?
  • Is my brand loyalty and reputation strong enough to withstand potential backlash from speaking out?
  • What do my stakeholders and board think about me providing a public opinion on this issue?
  • Are any of my peers making public statements on this issue? If so, how has the public reacted to their statements?


Tips for making a public statement 


If you’ve discussed the issue with stakeholders, considered the above points and have decided to voice your political opinion, the next step is to craft your message and roll-out strategy. Follow these tips from Harvard Business Review to ensure your action is viewed as authentic—not a publicity stunt.

  • Prepare your response: It takes the average company nearly 40 hours to create and launch a social media response campaign. However, when an issue is unfolding in the public eye, it’s crucial to balance planning with timeliness. Rather than fire off a Tweet or Facebook post in the heat of the moment, work swiftly with your PR and marketing departments to craft a strategy for where, when and how you will make your views public. To minimise misfires, consider your stakeholders’ needs and plan for potential negative repercussions in advance.
  • Craft a narrative: Why does this issue matter to you, your business and your customers? Does the issue at hand tie into your personal or professional story? When immigration issues divided America this fall, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a heartfelt update connecting his views with his family’s immigrant background. By crafting and sharing your unique narrative, you ensure that the public views your statement as authentic.
  • Communicate your values: Reinforce your company’s culture and ethics in your communications. Then, connect that to your decision to weigh in on the issue at hand. This tip takes your narrative one step further by reinforcing your company’s values and making it crystal clear why you’ve chosen to speak out.
  • Partner with trade groups or like-minded associations: In some cases, there’s greater power in numbers. Before stepping out solo, see if key industry associations or groups have prepared a response to the issue at hand. If so, consider aligning with them to bolster their efforts and provide additional credibility and weight to your view.
  • Be consistent: By following the above-mentioned strategies for preparation and messaging, you have already minimised the risk of making a damaging statement. Now it’s about being consistent with your message. Whether you’re posting on Facebook or filming a video response, your action puts your view out into the world—permanently. As public figures, CEOs will invariably receive follow-up enquiries, and sometimes even push-back, once they make a public statement. Show authenticity and resolve through consistent messaging.

Although CEO activism comes with both risks and rewards, trends show that around the globe, more business leaders are taking a stance on political issues such as immigration, taxes, workplace equality and sustainability. But as with any public relations activities, CEO activism—and its potential impact on your stakeholders, customers and employees—shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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