CEO Activism: How executives can take sides on social issues

When the state of Indiana in the U.S. passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 2015, corporate leaders from Salesforce to Angie’s List to Apple were quick to speak out. The law allowed individuals and companies to cite infringement of their religious freedom as a legal defense. Opponents of the law argued that it allowed for discrimination against LBGT people, for example by allowing business owners to refuse service to certain customers on religious grounds. The outcry from these CEOs and other influential parties across the U.S. prodded Indiana legislature to enact a second bill providing protections for the LGBT community.

The response to the RFRA is not an isolated example. CEOs are speaking up about social and political issues with more and more frequency.

Researchers Michael Toffel of Harvard Business School and Aaron Chatterji of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business attribute the trend in part to the rapid demographic and social change the U.S. is currently experiencing, noting that similar behavior was common during periods such as Prohibition and the civil rights movement. Their study of CEO activism, which focuses on Tim Cook’s response to the RFRA, found that his stance had a substantial effect on public opinion. After Tim Cook came out against the act, fewer people supported it and more people were interested in a trip to the Apple store.

However, not all executive activists have enjoyed the same positive reception. For example, when Chick-Fil-A President Dan Cathy spoke out against gay marriage in 2012, he earned plenty of support, but even more backlash. Ultimately, the company issued a statement saying that, “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

Should CEOs get involved in social issues?

The short answer is yes. A recent survey from Global Strategy Group found that 78 percent of respondents in the U.S. believe corporations should address social concerns.

But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. In another study, Weber Shandwick and KRC Research found that, while 38 percent of Americans believe CEOs should leverage their platforms to speak on hot-button issues, consumers feel less favorably about that activism when it’s not directly tied to the company’s business. Further, only 14 percent of respondents believe altruism is behind a CEO’s decision to take a stand, and nearly 20 percent aren’t sure why CEOs are speaking up at all.

CEO activism is, on the whole, perceived favorably by the American public. But companies planning to get involved in social and political issues should proceed with caution, considering their audiences’ political and social leanings and planning their messaging carefully before speaking out.

What’s the best way for a leader to communicate a position on a hot topic?

Our firm, Quantified Communications, conducted an analysis of dozens of examples of activist messaging and identified three communication patterns that are helping CEO activists have the right impact on their audiences—and one area in which they can become even more effective.

1.    Community focus

People are more likely to take action if they feel as though they have a stake in an issue. We found that CEO activists are capitalizing on that, using 14.7 percent more inclusive language than the average executive communicator.


Inclusive language is made up of plural and second-person pronouns and words that evoke collaboration, openness and engagement, making the audience feel like part of the movement and instilling a sense of responsibility to stand with the executive in enacting change.

When Nike CEO Mark Parker wrote an open letter to his employees following a spate of violence by and against police officers, he used three times as much “we” language as the average written communication, making it clear that the problem he was discussing belonged not just to him, but to the community as a whole:

“One thing will always be clear: Discrimination in any form and racial injustice are destructive forces. And talking about these issues can help find peace and paths forward. I firmly believe we are at our best when we engage and listen to those around us, in our communities at home and at work.”

2.    Authentic tone

Corporate leaders who speak or write about social issues use an authentic, more personal tone 31.6 percent more often than the average executive.

authentic-languageFor example, when AT&T’s Randall Stephenson addressed racial tension in American society following the 2016 Orlando night club shooting, he used the kind of language you could expect him to use in a one-on-one conversation:

“I want you to hear something, and this is really important, and I want to finish with this. I’m not asking you to be tolerant of each other. Tolerance is for cowards. Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and to not make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments without being challenged. Do not tolerate each other. Work hard, move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other.”

Stephenson’s tone is more like what you’d expect in a coffee shop than an auditorium, and that authenticity goes a long way in building a connection with an audience.

3.    Trust-building language

To inspire those around them, leaders have to demonstrate that they have their audiences’ best interests in mind. The same is true for activist CEOs, and we found that, in these communications, activist leaders come across as 37 percent more trustworthy than the average executive.

trustworthylanguageThe trustworthiness of a communication is measured on factors like the speaker’s ability to provide the audience with a comprehensive understanding of key points, and to take ownership of the message through personalized, active language.

When CEO Jonah Peretti announced BuzzFeed’s decision to pull “Trump for President” ads, his statement was perceived as one and a half times as trustworthy as the average executive communication:

“We don’t need to and do not expect to agree with the positions or values of all our advertisers. And as you know, there is a wall between our business and editorial operations. This decision to cancel this ad buy will have no influence on our continuing coverage of the campaign.

We certainly don’t like to turn away revenue that funds all the important work we do across the company. However, in some cases we must make business exceptions: we don’t run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health, and we won’t accept Trump ads for the exact same reason.”

Here, Peretti builds trust with his readers by explaining the rationale behind the decision—especially as it relates to the company’s operations—and by using personal pronouns to hold himself and his team responsible for the political decision.

What’s missing: Clearer connections to the bottom line

Interestingly enough, Peretti’s connection of his political views to his BuzzFeed’s operations is rare in CEO activist communication. In fact, we found that CEO activists actually discuss business operations and results 56 percent less often than the average executive communicator.

It may be tempting for CEOs to keep their business out of their politics, but based on the survey findings  mentioned above, that separation is actually more likely to dissuade audiences. In preparing to speak out on key social and political issues, we recommend executives work with their teams to make sure they’re clearly communicating the effects those issues have on the business.

When it comes to using their corporate platforms to speak out on social issues, leaders must strike a delicate balance. While the public is, in general, in favor of the practice, companies must weigh the risks of alienating consumer segments by taking sides. Once they identify an issue they want to champion, executives and their teams must plan strategically to foster productive conversations and inspire audiences to join the cause.

Noah Zandan

Noah Zandan for CW Observer