Speaking Out: How Americans Feel About CEO Activism

October 26, 2017


If you search “politics and business” on Google, then you’ll find a bevy of articles telling you how the workplace is a poor setting for expressing partisan loyalties, especially if you’re a CEO.

“Corporate leaders aren’t given their power, prestige, responsibility and nine-figure pay packages to use the corner office as their personal soapbox,” wrote New York Times columnist James B. Stewart in a recent essay.

However, because of today’s divisive political climate, Americans — and, more specifically, millennials — are becoming increasingly interested in hearing from CEOs on hot-button issues.

A new study from Weber Shandwick titled “CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite” — the second annual nationwide poll conducted on the topic with KRC Research — found that 47 percent of millennials believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about important societal issues, with 51 percent of millennials saying they’re more likely to buy from businesses led by CEO activists. 

Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick, views these results as a product of our evolving times. Business and politics aren’t separated anymore, and corporate leaders need to act accordingly.

“Business and policy today are colliding and clashing, and it is becoming increasingly hard to stay neutral all the time,” she says. “If a company’s values and purpose are challenged, business leaders will be forced to decide how to respond.”

Considering the stakeholders

It may not be so simple for executives, though, to decide “how to respond,” considering their company’s wide range of stakeholders.

“CEOs are concerned about employees, customers, investors, vendors, the media, online influencers, academics, regulators and NGOs,” says Gaines-Ross. “The dilemma is that in these hyperpartisan times, there will always be a group that disagrees or is offended by CEOs taking a stand on an issue and will make those feelings known.”

The disagreements are strong among the different age groups, too. Nearly six in 10 millennials think business leaders have a greater responsibility today to speak out than they used to, but older generations don’t quite agree; only 36 percent of Gen Xers and 35 percent of boomers see this same increase in responsibility.

With these divides in mind, it may seem logical for a CEO to therefore curve his or her beliefs toward older stakeholders, based on the preconception that millennials aren’t all members of the workforce nor in control of their finances just yet.

However, Gaines-Ross sees this as a poor, conservative strategy. Beside the fact that millennials spend approximately $600 billion a year, according to a recent report from Accenture, their business habits will soon shape the economy’s future, she says. And they possess the power to spread information quickly.

“Millennials talk about CEOs and companies with their friends, family and co-workers,” she says. “They use their networks to take action, whether it is online or offline. Millennials are also the most coveted target audience that companies are trying to attract and retain, therefore their opinions are highly valued and their spending power is actually substantial.”

Charting the trend

Gaines-Ross says that the trend of CEO activism has been burgeoning for a few years. In 2014, Weber Shandwick reported that about eight out of 10 executives felt it was important for CEOs to have a visible public profile for a company to be highly regarded.

Then, in 2016, on the heels of corporate leaders speaking up about anti-LGBT legislative proposals in states such as Indiana and North Carolina, another Weber Shandwick study found that 38 percent of Americans believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society.

That survey also revealed an important viewpoint on company loyalty: While 55 percent of employees reported feeling ambivalent about their own CEO’s activism, more respondents said their loyalty would increase (26 percent) rather than decrease (19 percent) as a result of this newfound outspokenness.

However, Gaines-Ross also says there may be something telling about this “ambivalence,” which mostly comes from Gen Xers and boomers: It suggests they haven’t quite decided what they think about the topic just yet.

“Our data shows that many Gen Xers and boomers have not yet made up their minds about CEO activism, perhaps because it is a fairly recent development and could be swayed either way,” she says. “CEOs and companies never used to mix business with politics. We are in new territory today.”

Preparing for backlash

When CEOs are considering what subject to speak out on, Weber Shandwick recommends that they think about whether their activism connects with the company’s values.
Though millennials approve of executives involving themselves with topics like climate change and race relations — issues likely unrelated to the company — other generations are more mixed. “For those topics with less consumer support, it is imperative to establish a strong business case,” reads the study.

According to the study, the issues most Americans agree CEOs should speak out on include job skills and training (70 percent), equal pay (67 percent), health-care coverage (62 percent) and maternity and paternity leave (61 percent). Inversely, few Americans feel CEOs should take a position on refugees (26 percent), gun control (26 percent) and LGBT rights (29 percent).

The study also recommends having a crisis preparedness plan in place for potential internet backlash. There will likely be media inquiries, employee questions and tweetstorms after a company takes a stance on a political issue, and CEOs will need to grin and bear it all.

“In this deeply politicized world we live in today, CEOs are learning to take the criticism with the praise,” says Gaines-Ross. “You have to develop a thick skin and expect the pitchforks to come out regardless of what you say or do.”

If such backlash seems too risky for a company, Weber Shandwick says that silence — at first — is OK.

When a CEO doesn’t choose a side, key stakeholders may start to put pressure on them to say something, such as when employees at the tech corporation Oracle started a petition for the company to oppose President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

However, only a minority of Americans think it is necessary for a CEO to be among the first to speak out. Therefore, executives can take their time and plan accordingly.

Facing the public

While executives are formally speaking on behalf of their company when they express their views on a hot-button topic, they’re also speaking for themselves. Thus, the study advises executives to “look in the mirror” before becoming an advocate to make sure “there are no skeletons in the closet related to the issue that the CEO is speaking up about.”

In other words, it’s now more important than ever for CEOs to be open and transparent about their views. Though it once was taboo for executives and company figureheads to reveal partisan loyalties, it could harm your business if you stay quiet for too long.

“We live in a world today where companies and their leaders can no longer keep secrets,” says Gaines-Ross. “It is literally impossible today for a company to hide in the shadows. All business leaders are public figures now.” 

Survey Methodology

In compiling “CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite,” Weber Shandwick partnered with KRC Research in March and April 2017 to conduct an online survey of 1,021 U.S. adults, 18 years of age and older, representing the general population of America.

Dean Essner

Dean Essner is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications. A former resident of Washington, D.C., he holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English from the University of Maryland. Email: dean.essner@prsa.org.


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