The recent surge of activism by CEOs — which was prompted by the words and actions of President Donald Trump — is not likely to stop when President-elect Joe Biden moves into the White House on January 20.
The headline-making advocacy of Nike, Patagonia, Walmart, and others has set the stage for a new generation of activist corporate leaders who regard speaking up not just a civic duty but as an important part of their company’s brand and a competitive advantage in a crowded and challenging marketplace.
Activism is nothing new of course. America was, after all, founded in part because of the actions of disgruntled colonists. What is new, however, is how advocacy has been trending in the world of commerce and can often be found in the DNA of entrepreneurs and their start-up companies.
Connecting With Consumers
Corporate advocacy can help businesses connect with people in ways that advertising and other forms of communication can’t.
“Many CEO activists have found new ways to get consumers to pay attention to their brand by making bold statements around their values — they engage both employees and customers in ways that are more than transactional — they are members of a community that stand for some particular change or issue,” according to Diane Gayeski, professor of strategic communications at the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.
Reports “…show that CEO activism helps with branding, brand loyalty, and brand authenticity. When you combine all of that with our social climate, how social media amplifies expectations, and the need for immediate reactions, it’s hard not to see why CEO activism is on the rise,” said Alladdine Djadiani, an entrepreneur, translator, and founder of Hustlrethos.com, a personal finance blog
Many people regard activism as an executive’s responsibility. A 2017 survey found that 56 percent of millennials said business leaders have a greater responsibility to speak out now than in years past, according to “CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite” a report prepared by Weber Shandwick, a global public relations agency.
Agents Of Change
Sometimes business executives may be more willing to tackle urgent problems than local, state, or national public officials, thereby filling a void created by politicians who do not want to do or say anything that may be controversial.
“I believe in business as an agent of change and a force for good,” said Rob Painter, CEO of Trimble, a publicly-traded technology company. “As business leaders, we have an obligation to speak, and more importantly, act on issues that impact our long-term sustainable success. Our shareholders, our employees, and many of our customers expect us to positively impact issues that affect us all, like climate change and diversity, equity and inclusion.
“It’s good for our business and good for our communities when we lead in these areas. Regardless of political leadership, I think corporate leaders have developed a platform and a comfort level around advocacy that is here to stay,” Painter said.
The public, at least, thinks the activism is having an impact. According to a 2018 study by Weber Shandwick, 48 percent of Americans believed that the activism of CEOs influenced the decisions and actions of government.
A Fine Line
Corporate leaders may have different motivations for taking a public stand on the various issues confronting society.
“I don’t think it is wise to force activism on entrepreneurs because it is only good for business. Instead, you can raise awareness and bring its benefits to light and see if that is what entrepreneurs are willing to do,” Djadiani noted. “I believe that standing up for something because it’s only good for business will harm you in the long run.
“There’s a fine line between conducting good business and staying true to your core ethics and morals, though. Chief executives are smart enough to know that their activism can be costly if there’s not a clear separation between running good business and just doing what’s right,” she observed.
No Shortage of Problems
“We have far too many problems to solve over the next four years that government can’t tackle alone — among them an immediate Covid response, post-Covid economic recovery, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, climate change, racial equity and immigration reform,” said Daniella Ballou-Aares, CEO of the Leadership Now Project.
“CEOs will be compelled to be part of the solution — both because it is in their interests in the short and long term, and because their stakeholders will demand it,” Ballou-Aares noted.
“The age of the CEO activist is just dawning,” Gayeski said. “Consumers and other stakeholders (investors, employees, donors) want more than ever to connect with a company’s values – and the CEO is the lead spokesperson for that story.”
The past four years of CEO activism in the Trump era will likely prove to be the prologue to a new era of corporate advocacy. When Biden becomes president, corporate leaders can be expected to speak up more not just because they think it could be good for the country — but because it could also be good for their companies.