In Today’s Climate, Should CEOs Speak Out on Political Issues?

Edelman 2020 Trust Barometer

Conventional wisdom may suggest brands are wise to keep politics out of business. But a growing trend in CEO activism and a spate of recent research finding that consumers may actually want corporate leaders to get involved indicate that, in today’s climate, mixing business and politics might just be a savvy choice.

In its 2020 Trust Barometer, Edelman found that 74 percent people believe CEOs should take the lead on change rather than wait for the government to impose it, and 92 percent of people believe it’s important that their employers’ CEOs speak out on one of several social and political issues.

Edelman 2020 Trust BarometerSo, in a climate where businesses are struggling to gain the public’s trust and 55 percent of the population believes capitalism does more harm than good (according to Edelman’s findings), CEO activism may be a powerful way for businesses to rebuild reputations as trustworthy, values-driven organizations. And we’re seeing this trend prove itself as corporate leaders begin to speak out on hot-button issues and commit to operating in a way that serves the community and society at large—not just stakeholders.

One of the earliest instances of corporate activism in recent history was Apple CEO Tim Cook’s stance against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. While it’s not easy to correlate an increase in sales to a political stance, research out of Harvard Business School did find that Cook’s political engagement did create an increase in intent to purchase from Apple.

Apple was just the first of many businesses to speak out on social issues, and we saw a handful of big, splashy, political statements from iconic companies in 2018 and 2019:

  • Patagonia announced it was going to donate the entirety of the $10 million it had received in GOP tax cuts to fight global warming.
  • Nike released an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick (a precursor to its “Dream Crazier” ad calling out gender-based double standards).
  • Gilette called out toxic masculinity in its “The Best Men Can Be” commercial.
  • BlackRock’s Larry Fink issued a letter calling corporations into action to combat climate change
  • Nearly 200 US CEOs signed a “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” committing to supporting a strong economy, healthy environment, and economic opportunity in the United States.

In short, the old-school perspective that a business’s only responsibility is to its stakeholders is no longer viable. But before you go find a soapbox to stand on, keep in mind that, like any corporate communication initiative, CEO activism requires careful planning and strategic thinking.

All of the corporate statements on social issues listed above have drawn equal amounts of support and criticism, and the backlash against Chik-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s decision to speak out against gay marriage serves as a warning that, when a business speaks out without careful consideration for its customers’ viewpoints, corporate activism may do more harm than good.

And yet, RetailMeNot’s 2019 Retailer Playbook reports that, considering 61 percent of consumers will recommend brands that align with their social values, 87 percent of retailers say taking a stand on social issues is worth the risk. Of course, companies that choose to speak out can mitigate that risk by carefully constructing their messages in order to maximize positive response and minimize backlash.

Four our full guide to how leaders should communicate when they want to take a stand on corporate issues, we invite you to download our recent white paper. But for now, here are three things to keep in mind as you craft a political message for your corporate platform.

1.   Communicate Authentically

In our early research on communication around corporate activism, we found that, when corporate leaders speak or write about social issues, they communicate 31.6 percent more authentically than the average executive. Authenticity goes a long way in building connections with audiences, and that’s true in political conversation, as well. Effective corporate activist communication includes no “holier-than-thou” soapboxing or pandering. When leaders appear to be putting on airs or “spinning” their messages in a disingenuous way, customers will turn the other way. Instead, executive activists should be speaking in more natural tones, opening conversations rather than preaching. Because when customers feel like these leaders are speaking honestly and authentically, they’re much more likely to listen and engage.

Of course, it should go without saying that one of the biggest keys to perceived authenticity is showing audiences that your words are matching your company’s action. If an executive preaches the company’s commitment to combatting climate change while its carbon footprint continues to rise, that particular kind of activism will backfire quickly.

2.   Establish Trust

Our research also found that CEO activist communication comes across as 37 percent more trustworthy than the average executive communication. And it stands to reason that, in this era of “fake news” heightened distrust in leadership and media, successful executive activists will be skilled at using language designed to build trust with their audiences.

When we measure trustworthy communication, we look for speakers who can provide the audience with a comprehensive understanding of key points and take ownership of their messages through personalized, active language. When corporations and their leaders can do more than pick a side in a political battle—when they can clearly and thoroughly explain why they believe what they believe, how they came to believe it, and what it means for the community and the company—audiences will be more likely to trust in their message and their brand.

3.   Connect Your Political Stance to Your Bottom Line

Finally, when planning a political or social statement, it’s important for CEOs to connect their stances to their companies’ interests. This may seem counterintuitive—like admitting to an ulterior motive—but Edelman’s Trust Barometer found that 73 percent of the population believes a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve conditions in communities where it operates. And furthermore, hardly anybody really believes a business is getting involved in politics for purely selfless reasons. Weber-Shandwick’s research on executive activism found only 14 percent of the American public credits altruism as the reason for a CEO to speak out, and nearly 20 percent unsure why CEOs are speaking up at all.

In light of these findings, we recommend that leaders be clear about what their brands serve to gain. It goes back to building trust through authenticity: if you’re honest with your audience about why you value what you do and what those values mean for both the community and your brand, they’ll stop looking for deceptive motives and focus instead on the core of the message.

When it comes to mixing business and politics, brands and their leaders have a powerful opportunity to use their platforms, both in person and online, to drive change—and to build their reputations in the process. But once the decision is made to take a stand, it’s important to do so thoughtfully and strategically. If you’re considering joining the movement of CEO activists, we encourage you to read our full white paper on executive activism, and contact us to learn more about how Quantified Communications can help your team craft effective messaging—for both in-person events or conversations and online platforms—on the issues that are most important to you.