CEO Activism: How Speaking Out on Social Issues Can Deliver for Your Business


September 2, 2016–The billion dollar question for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is – how do purpose programs deliver for the bottom line? Weber Shandwick recently conducted a survey of American consumers to better understand the attitudes about and awareness of one element of a strong CSR strategy: a CEO speaking out on important societal issues.

In our work with leading purpose-driven companies, we have seen that CEO visibility on important social issues is a critical success factor in a CSR program. It’s hard to imagine Unilever’s success without Paul Polman’s vocal and visible championing of the Sustainable Living Plan.

Our research confirms this – nearly 40% of American adults believe that it is a CEO’s duty to engage with and speak out on hot-button issues. But, the research also shows a few “watch-outs” and risks to consider.

The first question for CSR professionals is how to determine when to engage in what we’re calling CEO activism. Our survey results reveal a few insights that can guide strategy and execution. More than three in 10 Americans (32%) hold a less than favorable view of CEOs who speak out on issues that are not clearly tied to their companies’ core business. The first imperative, then, is to speak out on issues that impact your business. Jerry Stritzke, President and CEO of REI, took a bold stand in 2015 by closing all 143 REI stores on Black Friday to encourage his customers to spend the day outside. His decision made sense – after all, REI is in the business of equipping people to enjoy hiking and camping. This was a great example of authentic CEO activism.

Finding the right voice requires both transparency and authenticity. Our survey shows the public does not fully credit CEOs’ motives for activism, citing media attention and CEO reputation-building as the top reasons CEOs take public stands. CEOs should anticipate and answer the questions: Why are you taking on this issue? Does it impact your business? Does it impact you or your employees personally? Answer these questions for yourself before you’re asked to explain.

And, no matter what issue you choose or when you plan to put the CEO out, nothing should happen before you have a frank conversation about risk management. The good news our survey uncovered is that 40% of Americans are more likely to buy from a company when they agree on the issue. However, 45% are less likely to buy if they disagree with the CEO’s position.

Taking on an issue requires being ready for the reaction – both positive and negative. Are you willing to risk sales? Do you have a plan for negative media coverage? Are all the relevant parts of the company engaged – from the general counsel to the communications lead? Make sure to engage your board members; they do not tend to like surprises. Another key stakeholder audience to consider is your employees. Will they feel excluded, less productive or less loyal? Make sure there is a plan for employees who might want to opt out of aligning with the CEO’s position.

CEO activism can take up valuable executive time and business resources. No matter the timing or the issue, if you’re going to make the investment, make it for the long-term and commit the right level of resources – set cost expectations and make sure your budget matches your bold ambitions.

To read the full report: The Dawn of CEO Activism, please visit: http://www.webershandwick.com/uploads/news/files/the-dawn-of-ceo-activism.pdf

Victoria Baxter is a Senior Vice President and the Americas lead for Weber Shandwick’s Social Impact Practice based in Washington, DC. Maureen Golga is an Executive Vice President in the Corporate Practice based in Boston, MA.

By Victoria Baxter and Maureen Golga Weber Shandwick

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