Speak Up But Not Out

When a CEO speaks out people listen. But is that a good thing? Some recent examples suggest it’s not.

Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic.” This was CEO of Twitter Elon Musk’s tweet just two days before the U.S. midterm elections on November 8th and just 11 days after taking over the company.

Similarly, Howard Schultz, founder and former CEO of Starbucks once said: “You can’t create emotional attachment if you stand for nothing.”

For both these CEOs, and many others, engaging in corporate social advocacy backfired. Musk’s attempt to push people to vote a certain way was seen by some as crossing the line for a CEO. Howard Schultz faced repeated criticism for publicly supporting the #blacklivesmatter movement but privately banning employees from wearing T-shirts with that hashtag. Some see his recent closing of restrooms to anyone who needs them, after years of calling attention to his egalitarian policy, as a similar about-face.

This backlash contradicts some who believe that in the Twitter age, silence might be more conspicuous and consequential than speaking out.

I respectfully disagree.

Corporate social advocacy, or when a CEO speaks out directly to the public about a current social topic – but one that is outside the scope of the core business – it is both loved and loathed depending on your stance on the CEO, the company, the issue – or all three – as well as other demographic factors. A recent Bentley University/Gallup survey captures some of these conditions. Americans overall are divided on whether businesses should take a public stance on current events — 48% say yes, while 52% say no. Younger people, women, Asian Americans, Black Americans and Democrats are particularly likely to believe businesses should take a stance. In fact, 75% of Democrats – and only 18% of Republicans – say businesses should speak out. Give this landscape, a company is as likely to please as to offend. Tough odds.

And, there is little doubt that speaking out, that is speaking to external audiences like consumers or the general public, is risky. Some social advocacy messages, however well intentioned, are increasingly being considered material information which by law CEOs can’t share on social media because that medium does not constitute acceptable disclosure by the SEC. Boards of directors of publicly traded companies are especially hesitant to embrace CEO activism, and with good reason. At a Director’s Forum I attended in 2021, 88% of boards surveyed said they would not want their CEO speaking out about social or political issues.

There is a difference – and ought to be – between a CEO as a person speaking out on an issue, especially one unrelated to their brand, and the company speaking out (perhaps through the CEO) on public issues of concern to its business. It used to be that these “issue ads”, championed by Supreme Court on the behalf of the Bank of Boston three decades ago, allowed the corporate voice to be rightly heard alongside others in a democratic society. I think this is still the right approach.

If CEOs are speaking out through the brand, it makes sense for the company to think about whether and how it benefits the company. And, while CEO advocacy can increase consumers’ intentions to purchase the company’s products, this intention is conditioned on alignment between the CEO’s message and the person’s policy preferences. Importantly, consumers are significantly more likely to remember products they stopped using or use less because of the position the CEO took than products they started using or use more. The specter of boycotting the firm looms large. #TwitterOff trended Friday with over 36 million tweets.

And what of employees? Communicating to employees is a must. They are the company, and they offer a lens on the degree to which the leaders align their actions with their intentions. Research backs this up by suggesting that CEO social advocacy might be especially influential with a CEO’s own employees. Employees need to know where the company and the CEO stand on certain pivotal issues as they are representatives of the people that work for them – especially when these issues resonate with the espoused values or mission of the company that the company is expecting employees themselves to uphold.

If a company still feels compelled to speak out it’s best to consider three things at a minimum –  1) how well does it really understand the social positions of the CEO, 2) what is the goal of speaking out (e.g. empathy for a cause/a people, avoiding silence, increasing purchases, preventing boycotting, etc.) and 3) what does the best and worst outcome of speaking out look like?

If the company can’t reasonably answer these then the CEO needs to speak up, but not out.



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