Activism from Leaders: Slow Down and Reflect Before Speaking Out

Many pundits applaud the idea of CEOs / organizations taking a side on societal issues. My opinion: many of these pundits are expressing this point of view based on whether the CEO / organization’s position aligns to their beliefs.
Let’s say that an organization’s CEO takes a stand against the NRA. Many of the pro activism pundits who view the NRA as a problem (which would be me), will applaud such a move. What happens when another CEO comes out and takes a stance that supports the NRA? The same anti-NRA pundit who says that CEO activism is so wonderful might be singing a different tune.

How do organization’s activism around societal issues impact customers and employees? For example, the majority of the population (53%) view the NRA favorably, while 42% have unfavorable opinions, according to Gallup. There is a good chance that key stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers – reflect such opinions. So great, the organization’s activism riles up and invigorates one side. But the other side may very well become disengaged. It is hard for me to see how that is beneficial for the business in most cases.

The Research
There is a plethora of other research out there on this topic. Much of it seems to cheerlead the activism crusade.

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, 58% say they look to their employer to be a trustworthy source of information about social issues and other important topics on which there is not general agreement.

However, this and other studies don’t distinguish whether the position that the organization takes would align with the individual’s beliefs. I would like to see the research that says “___% of people support businesses speaking out on social issues even when it is diametrically opposed to their personal beliefs.” My guess is that number would be very, very low.

A recent Weber Shandwick /  KRC Research study found that 38% think favorably about CEO activists. The study points that this result is on the upswing compared to years past. However, I guess that would mean a large percentage would be indifferent or unfavorable towards CEO activists.

When to Speak Out
For me, there are only two times when I think an organization / leader should take sides on hot-button political issues:
  1. When the organization is taking direct action on a policy matter that is directly related to its business and cause marketing objectives. For example, I collaborated with a graduate school and one of its main value propositions was to offer students a global education. When the Trump administration came out with its Muslim ban, leadership publicly communicated its opposition to this stance. This made sense – it was directly related to the school’s business and values. This relates to cause marketing – the idea of benefiting both society and the business. I am reading the book called Pencils of Promise which details the story of how Founder Adam Braun used cause marketing to grow his organization. Obviously in both these exampless, the stances that are taken should be directly in their lane. For me, it would be inappropriate and outside these organizations lanes to suddenly take positions on issues like gun rights, abortion and tax legislation.

  2. Taking a stance when the culture of the organization is already clearly established. So for example, on the politically left side of the spectrum, I think it is fine for Ben and Jerry’s to advocate for some of its causes that are deemed to be liberal points of view. Why? When the company was established, it was very clear in its mission and values that Ben and Jerry’s took such positions. It was and still is part of the organization’s DNA. Therefore, if you are a customer, employee or other stakeholder, you know, before even getting on board and collaborating with Ben & Jerry’s, where exactly the company stands. On the other side of the spectrum, I have no problem with Chik-fil-A advocating for social conservative causes. Why? It is been embedded since the company’s founding that Chik-fil-A is run by a Christian CEO who is socially conservative. The Christian undertones are evidenced by the fact that the restaurant is closed on Sunday. Therefore, if the CEO expresses an opinion in opposition to gay marriage, it shouldn’t come as a shock to the company’s different stakeholders. The problem would be if suddenly Ben and Jerry’s or Chik-fil-A took reverse positions, or if an organization that is neural comes out and takes a position. Suddenly you are going to alienate a large percentage of your stakeholders.

If the cause which an organization is advocating doesn’t fit through these lens, then I would think in most cases, it is a perilous course to follow. There are enough places to go to look for political discussions and also find advocacy groups that can support one cause or another. I don’t need my airline company, for example, to be this voice. Just get me safely on time to my next destination and I will be happy. I can go to other sources to advocate for my causes.

This article is written by Kevin Anselmo, founder of Experiential Communications.