CEO Activism – Good for Business and Society

August 17, Roger Bolton

President Trump’s decision to disband his business advisory councils in the face of CEO activism is just the latest development in a trend: CEOs increasingly are speaking out on social issues.

They may prefer, as Alan Murray suggested in a thoughtful report this morning, “to avoid controversy, for the sake of their businesses.” But increasingly, CEOs realize they have an opportunity and an obligation to speak out, for the sake of their businesses. As recent research by Weber Shandwick shows, millennials increasingly expect that.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that research done by Arthur W. Page Center Legacy Scholar “Melissa Dodd, an assistant professor in advertising and public relations at the University of Central Florida, has found that older people are more likely to boycott a company when its views don’t align with their own. By contrast, millennials are more likely to shop at a company that has views similar to theirs.”

I’ve previously commented on a study by two researchers from Duke and Harvard, Aaron Chatterji and Michael Toffel, whose results "suggest that CEO activism can sway public opinion – and also increase interest in buying the company's products."

In many cases, companies are modifying their policies and practices in response to social issues. Examples include Facebook and AirBnB in reaction to the violence in Charlottesville and Target on gender neutral bathrooms.

CEOs traditionally spoke out largely on issues affecting business – tax and trade policy, for example. Today, they increasingly address social concerns. Tesla CEO Elon Musk on artificial intelligence, for example, or IBM CEO Ginni Rometty on “new collar” jobs.

Former Page Society Chairman Gary Sheffer recently wrote in PRWeek about how his former boss at GE, CEO Jeff Immelt, knew that chairing President Obama’s Jobs Council “would be difficult for GE’s and his reputation in a politically fractured country.

Still, he put country ahead of personal interest and politics …” and fulfilled the responsibility.

The remarkable development this week is that CEOs are now opting out of the chance to influence economic policy issues in order to take a principled stand on important social issues.

For corporate chief communication officers, there is a huge opportunity to help CEOs navigate the pitfalls of speaking out in the knowledge that there is potential opportunity to help the business and to build a more just world when they do so.

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