But does CEO activism actually change public opinion and policies? What are its risks and rewards? And what is the playbook for leaders considering speaking out? The authors of this article examine those questions and explain the takeaways of their own research. One finding: Consumers tend to view CEO activism through the lens of their own political affiliations, so it can provoke both negative and positive responses. Nevertheless, in the age of Twitter, silence on an issue can be conspicuous—and consequential.
Though corporations have been lobbying the government and making campaign donations for a long time now, in recent years a dramatic new trend has emerged in U.S. politics: CEOs are taking very public stands on thorny political issues that have nothing to do with their firms’ bottom lines. Business leaders like Tim Cook of Apple, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, and Marc Benioff of Salesforce—among many others—are passionately advocating for a range of causes, including LGBTQ rights, immigration, the environment, and racial equality. Not only are CEOs speaking out, but they’re flexing their firms’ economic muscles by threatening to move business activities out of states that pass controversial laws.
When we first started studying CEO activism, three years ago, we never imagined how significant this phenomenon would become. At the time a small but growing band of executives were taking public stands on political and social issues unrelated to their companies’ bottom lines. Since then, controversies over laws affecting transgender people in North Carolina, police shootings in Missouri, and executive orders on immigration have drawn increasing numbers of CEOs into contentious public debates. More recently, the White House’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, response to the clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals have galvanized many U.S. corporate leaders to speak out and take action.
Of course, corporations have long played an active role in the U.S. political process. They lobby, make contributions to candidates, and fund political action committees and campaigns on various issues in an effort to shape public policies to their benefit. But CEO activism is something new. Until recently, it was rare for corporate leaders to plunge aggressively into thorny social and political discussions about race, sexual orientation, gender, immigration, and the environment. The so-called Michael Jordan dictum that Republicans buy sneakers too reminds executives that choosing sides on divisive issues can hurt sales, so why do it? Better to weigh in on what traditionally have been seen as business issues, such as taxes and trade, with technocratic arguments rather than moral appeals.
PR firms are now building entire practices around CEO activism.
But the world has changed. Political partisanship and discourse grow ever more extreme, and the gridlock in Washington, D.C., shows no sign of easing. Political and social upheaval has provoked frustration and outrage, inspiring business leaders like Tim Cook of Apple, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, and Marc Benioff of Salesforce—among many others—to passionately advocate for a range of causes. “Our jobs as CEOs now include driving what we think is right,” Bank of America’s CEO, Brian Moynihan, told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s not exactly political activism, but it is action on issues beyond business.”
The world is taking notice. CEO activism has gotten lots of media attention lately, and public relations firms are now building entire practices around it. While this phenomenon has largely been confined to the United States, there’s little reason to doubt that it could develop into a global force. We believe that the more CEOs speak up on social and political issues, the more they will be expected to do so. And increasingly, CEO activism has strategic implications: In the Twitter age, silence is more conspicuous—and more consequential.
All this activity raises big questions that we will attempt to address: Does CEO activism actually change hearts and minds? What are the risks and potential rewards? And what is the playbook for corporate leaders considering speaking out?
Why CEOs Speak Up
CEOs are weighing in on controversial topics for several reasons. Some point to their corporate values to explain their advocacy, as BOA’s Moynihan and Dan Schulman of PayPal did when taking a stand against a North Carolina law requiring people to use the bathrooms corresponding with the gender on their birth certificates, which became a referendum on transgender rights.
Other CEOs argue that companies should have a higher purpose beyond maximizing shareholder value—a concept that has been gaining traction in the business world. As Benioff told Time, “Today CEOs need to stand up not just for their shareholders, but their employees, their customers, their partners, the community, the environment, schools, everybody.”
And for many leaders, speaking out is a matter of personal conviction. David Green, the founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby, a family-owned chain of crafts stores, cited his religious beliefs when opposing the Obamacare requirement that health insurance for employees include coverage for the morning-after pill among all other forms of birth control.
Some leaders have commented that a greater sense of corporate purpose has become important to Millennials, whether they be employees or customers. Indeed, research from Weber Shandwick and KRC Research finds that large percentages of Millennials believe that CEOs have a responsibility to speak out on political and social issues and say that CEO activism is a factor in their purchasing decisions.
Sometimes leaders point to multiple motivations. “I just think it’s insincere to not stand up for those things that you believe in,” Jeff Immelt, the former CEO of GE, has said. “We’re also stewards of our companies; we’re representatives of the people that work with us. And I think we’re cowards if we don’t take a position occasionally on those things that are really consistent with what our mission is and where our people stand.”
The Tactics of CEO Activists
Though they’re motivated by diverse interests—external, internal, and deeply personal—activist CEOs generally employ two types of tactics: raising awareness and leveraging economic power.
For the most part, this involves making public statements—often in the news media, more frequently on Twitter—to garner support for social movements and help usher in change. In such statements business leaders are communicating to stakeholders where they stand on a whole slate of issues that would not have been on the CEO’s agenda a generation ago. For example, Goldman Sachs’s CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, and Biogen’s former CEO George Scangos have spoken out publicly on government policies that affect the rights of LGBTQ individuals. On the socially conservative side of the spectrum, Chick-fil-A’s CEO, Dan Cathy, has denounced gay marriage.
In some cases, several CEOs have worked together to raise awareness. For example, days before the United Nations climate-change-agreement negotiations took place in Paris in late 2015, the CEOs of 14 major food companies—Mars, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Danone Dairy North America, Hershey, Ben & Jerry’s, Kellogg, PepsiCo, Nestlé USA, New Belgium Brewing, Hain Celestial, Stonyfield Farm, and Clif Bar—cosigned an open letter calling on government leaders to create a strong accord that would “meaningfully address the reality of climate change.” Similarly, nearly 100 CEOs cosigned an amicus brief to encourage federal judges to overturn Trump’s executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
How CEOs Respond: Three Types of Tactics
Lobby behind the scenes
Contribute to campaigns
Communicate internally with employees
Do nothing ACTIVISM RAISING AWARENESS
Issue a statement or tweet
Write an op-ed
Seek to spur public action via trade associations EXERTING ECONOMIC INFLUENCE
Relocate business activities
Pause business expansion
Fund political and activist groups
Collective action can have greater impact than acting alone. Take what happened with Trump’s economic councils. Though Merck’s CEO, Kenneth Frazier, received a lot of press when he resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council in response to Trump’s remarks blaming white supremacists and counterprotesters equally for the violence in Charlottesville, it was only after CEOs jumped ship en masse from that group and from Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum that the president disbanded both councils—a move that was widely viewed as a defeat for Trump.
Leveraging economic power.
Some of the more powerful cases of CEO activism have involved putting economic pressure on states to reject or overturn legislation. For example, in response to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which some viewed as anti-LGBTQ, Bill Oesterle, then the CEO of Angie’s List, canceled its planned expansion in Indianapolis, and Benioff threatened to halt all Salesforce employee travel to the state. Other leaders joined the protest, including the president of the National College Athletic Association, Mark Emmert, who suggested that the bill’s passage could affect the location of future tournaments and that the association might consider moving its headquarters out of Indianapolis. Under pressure, then-governor Mike Pence approved a revised version of the law, which forbade businesses from denying service to customers because of their sexual orientation.
In response to North Carolina’s bathroom law, Schulman canceled PayPal’s plans for a new global operations center in Charlotte, which would have created more than 400 skilled jobs. As many other CEOs followed suit, the potential damage mounted: The Associated Press has estimated that the bathroom law controversy will cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years.
Companies and their leaders also wield economic power by donating to third-party groups that promote their favored causes. To help fight Trump’s immigration ban, for example, the car-sharing company Lyft pledged $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging the ban in court. In response to the Charlottesville protest and Trump’s reaction to it, James Murdoch, the chief executive of 21st Century Fox, donated $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights bigotry.
How effective are these approaches? The trend of corporate leaders taking a public stand on issues not necessarily related to their businesses is relatively new, so there’s little empirical evidence of its impact. But we do have limited anecdotal evidence that it can shape public policy—as it did in the case of Indiana’s RFRA. When legislators passed a similar religious freedom bill in Georgia, threats to stop filming in the state from leaders of many studios and networks—including Disney, CBS, MGM, and Netflix—and similar kinds of warnings from Benioff and other CEOs were seen as instrumental in moving the governor to veto it. And leaders of the National Basketball Association, NCAA, and Atlantic Coast Conference have been credited with forcing North Carolina to revise its bathroom law.
To move beyond anecdotal evidence, we set out to investigate in a scientific, rigorous way whether CEOs can help win public support for policies, thus affecting legislators’ votes and whether governors sign or veto bills. Our findings demonstrate that CEOs can indeed play an important role in shaping the public’s views on political and social issues. (See the sidebar “Our Research: Does CEO Activism Influence Public Opinion?”) Moreover, as we’ll discuss, we find that when CEOs communicate a stance on such issues, it can spur like-minded consumers to purchase more of their products.
Our Research: Does CEO Activism Influence Public Opinion?
Some of the experiments we conducted investigated whether and how CEO activism might affect public opinion. In one, we developed a survey asking people if they supported or opposed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), at a time when the controversy over it was still very much in the news. In some cases, we first told them that many were concerned that the law might allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. In other cases we attributed those concerns to Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook; to Bill Oesterle, who was then CEO of Indiana-based Angie’s List; or to the mayor of Indianapolis.
The market research company Civic Science deployed our survey on the hundreds of third-party websites (newspapers, entertainment sites, and so on) with which it partners, gathering 3,418 responses from across the United States. Among those in the baseline condition, who were not told of any discrimination concern, 50% of respondents favored the law—evidence of how split the country is on such legislation. Support for the law dipped to about 40% among respondents who answered the question after being presented with discrimination concerns, regardless of who expressed them—a CEO or a politician—or even if they weren’t attributed to anyone in particular.
These results imply that public opinion, at least in this study, was shaped more by the message than by the messenger. There are two ways to interpret this: You can infer that CEOs have no special ability to influence public opinion. After all, their statements had no more effect than politicians’ or unattributed statements. On the other hand, the results show that CEOs can be as persuasive as political leaders. CEOs can attract media attention, especially when they speak out on contentious social and environmental issues that are not obviously connected to their bottom lines, which heightens their authenticity. Given that CEOs can sway public opinion, we assume that they can shape public policy, too.
Our study went a bit further to see whether CEO activism would affect people differently depending on their preexisting policy preferences. We found that Cook’s discrimination remarks further eroded (already-low) RFRA support among same-sex marriage advocates but had no impact on the much more pro-RFRA views of same-sex marriage opponents. It’s important to be aware of whose opinions CEO activism is likely to shift—and whose are likely to be unmoved. In fact, recent research has found that CEOs’ political endorsements can significantly affect the campaign contributions of their employees, which suggests that CEO activism might be especially influential with a CEO’s own employees.
The Risks and Potential Rewards
In today’s politically charged atmosphere, mere affiliations with political leaders or causes can be risky. A few weeks into Trump’s term, Under Armour’s CEO, Kevin Plank, faced criticism after referring to the president as “a real asset for the country” in an interview. One of his star pitchmen, the Golden State Warriors player Stephen Curry, expressed his displeasure publicly. The hashtag #BoycottUnderArmour began appearing on Twitter, and other Under Armour endorsers, including ballerina Misty Copeland, echoed Curry. The company had to take out a full-page newspaper ad clarifying Plank’s comments and stating his opposition to Trump’s immigration ban. But that response did not stop Under Armour’s stock from being downgraded as one analyst wondered whether the gaffe would “make it nearly impossible to effectively build a cool urban lifestyle brand in the foreseeable future.”
CEO activism has sometimes led to charges of hypocrisy. For example, a few conservative websites have criticized Benioff and Cook for denouncing religious freedom laws while Salesforce and Apple continue to do business in countries that persecute LGBTQ individuals. And some activism efforts have come off as clumsy: Consider the widespread ridicule that greeted Howard Schultz’s Race Together campaign, in which Starbucks baristas were instructed to write that phrase on all drink cups in an effort to combat racism.
On the other hand, activism can burnish a corporate leader’s reputation. In the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, the CEOs who resigned from Trump’s economic councils (a group that included Plank) were widely praised. The applause for Merck’s Frazier, the first to step down, was particularly effusive. “Mr. Frazier, thank you for your courageous stand,” tweeted U.S. representative Keith Ellison. The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect was even more emphatic, tweeting “A HERO: Ken Frazier.”
This controversy also highlighted the risk of silence, which may be viewed as a sign of tacit approval. The New York Times and CNBC published lists of which CEOs remained on the president’s various economic councils, with CNBC noting that “with each new resignation, those left on the council faced increased scrutiny.” Oracle’s CEO had similarly been put on the spot when a group of workers from that company launched a petition urging their employer to join numerous other companies in opposing Trump’s immigration ban. Their effort attracted national attention, with USA Today observing, “More than 130 tech companies—from Apple to Zynga—have signed the amicus brief. Oracle and IBM have not.”
Still, CEOs should keep in mind that reactions to activism can cut both ways. While Benioff’s advocacy has been widely praised, he admitted to CBS News that Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and a retired four-star general—and now a Salesforce director—warned him: “The farther you go up the tree, the more your backside is going to be exposed, and you’d better be careful.” After Chick-fil-A’s Cathy spoke out against gay marriage, the chain faced consumer picket lines and a boycott—but also a countervailing “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” which attracted large crowds of customers. Indeed, in a Weber Shandwick survey 40% of respondents said they would be more likely to purchase from a company if they agreed with the CEO’s position, but 45% said they’d be less likely to if they disagreed with the CEO’s view.
We conducted our own experiment to assess the influence of CEO activism on U.S. consumers’ behavior. In it, we asked a nationally representative group of respondents about their intent to buy Apple products in the near future. To some, we first provided a statement describing CEO Tim Cook’s opinion that Indiana’s religious freedom bill was discriminatory against LGBTQ individuals; to others, we provided a generic statement about Cook’s management philosophy. To the rest, we provided no statement at all; we simply asked about purchasing intent. We randomly deployed these three conditions and received 2,176 responses. The people in the group exposed to Cook’s activism, we found, expressed significantly higher intent to buy Apple products in the near future than those in the other two groups. Learning about Cook’s activism increased intent to purchase among supporters of same-sex marriage but did not erode intent among its opponents. These results indicate that CEO activism can generate goodwill for the company but need not alienate those who disagree with the CEO. But this most likely does not apply to all companies. Apple products are especially sticky, so while Cook’s remarks might not provoke a backlash against iPhones, other business leaders should consider whether the political makeup of their consumers and the nature of their products might lead to a different result. It’s critical for every CEO to proceed thoughtfully.
The CEO Activist’s Playbook
Drawing on our empirical research and interviews with CEO activists and their stakeholders, we have developed a guide for leaders who are deciding whether to speak out and how.
What to weigh in on.
Smart CEO activists typically choose their issues; the issues do not choose them. To avoid being blindsided by a news story or awkwardly weighing in on a topic they know little about, CEOs should sit down with their executive teams, including their chief communications officers, and decide what issues matter to them and why. This discussion should include reflection on why championing the selected causes would have greater social impact than championing other causes. (On occasion, however, there’s no time for this kind of deliberation, such as when corporate leaders felt they quickly needed to make it clear they had no tolerance for racism after Charlottesville.)
Activism in Action
Corporate Leader Issue Action Taken MARC BENIOFF
CEO, Salesforce Anti-discrimination In 2015, Benioff tweeted his opposition to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and suspended corporate travel to the state; he later spoke out against North Carolina’s bathroom bill and developed a reputation for rallying other business leaders to speak out. DAN CATHY
CEO, Chick-fil-A Same-sex marriage In 2012, Cathy publicly opposed same-sex marriage on a radio show; his corporation’s foundation also donated to anti-LGBTQ organizations. DAVID AND BARBARA GREEN
Cofounders, Hobby Lobby Health care/religious freedom The Greens filed a highly publicized lawsuit in 2012 to oppose Affordable Care Act–mandated birth control coverage. PETER LEWIS
Late chairman, Progressive Insurance Marijuana decriminalization In 2011, Lewis wrote an opinion piece for Forbes supporting decriminalization; he also donated $3 million to marijuana legalization campaigns. JOHN MACKEY
CEO, Whole Foods Market Health care In 2009, Mackey wrote an editorial criticizing the Affordable Care Act. PAUL POLMAN
CEO, Unilever Climate change Polman has delivered many public speeches supporting government policies to address climate change. JIM ROGERS
Former CEO, Duke Energy Climate change In 1990, Rogers (as CEO of Public Service Indiana, which eventually became part of Duke Energy) testified before Congress in support of Clean Air Act amendments; he later lobbied Congress to support climate change legislation. HAMDI ULUKAYA
CEO, Chobani Refugee crisis In 2014, Ulukaya pledged to donate $2 million to refugees. He also hired refugees to work at Chobani’s manufacturing plants and wrote an op-ed for CNN in support of refugees.
Source MICHAEL W. TOFFEL, AARON K. CHATTERJI, AND JULIA KELLEY, “CEO ACTIVISM (A),” HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL CASE 617-001, MARCH 2017
Executives must balance the likelihood of having an effect and other potential benefits—such as pleasing employees and consumers—against the possibility of a backlash. As part of this assessment, CEOs should explicitly consider how their statements and actions will be received in a politically polarized atmosphere. A 2016 Global Strategy Group report shows that when companies are associated with political issues, customers view this connection through the lens of their party affiliation. According to the study, twice as many Democrats viewed Schultz’s Race Together campaign positively as viewed it negatively, but three times as many Republicans viewed it unfavorably as viewed it favorably. Cook’s advocacy for gay marriage produced similar responses. Championship of less divisive issues, such as parental leave and STEM education, however, is more likely to improve the brand image of the CEO’s company among both Democrats and Republicans, the study showed.
CEOs should also consider the extent to which the public believes a CEO voice is appropriate on a given topic. The Global Strategy Group study found that Democrats and Republicans both thought it was fitting for companies to take public stances on economic issues like minimum wage and parental leave. However, there was much less consensus about the appropriateness of weighing in on social issues such as abortion, gun control, LGBTQ equality, and immigration.
Immigration has proven a particularly complex issue, as the experiences of Chobani’s CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, and Carbonite’s CEO, Mohamad Ali, illustrate. Immigrants to the United States themselves, both publicly opposed the Trump administration’s restrictions. Both have been praised for their stances, but Ulukaya was also threatened and his company faced a boycott, while Ali’s remarks prompted no discernible backlash. This difference could be attributed to Ulukaya’s focus on the moral need to provide job opportunities for refugees, whereas Ali placed more emphasis on immigrants as job creators whose work also benefits native-born citizens. It’s important to note, however, that while speaking out on controversial topics might provoke an adverse reaction, it is also likely to attract media coverage, which increases the opportunity for a CEO’s views to be heard in the first place.
To influence public policy, the message has to be authentic to both the individual leader and the business. There should be a compelling narrative for why this issue matters to this CEO of this business at this time. The issue selection is also a crucial time to “get smart” about the underlying details. CEOs can quickly get in over their heads if they start speaking publicly about complex issues and are pressed by knowledgeable journalists and commentators. Because the credibility of business leaders rests on the perception that they make decisions after careful analysis, CEO activists can be effective only if they really understand the issue under debate.
When to weigh in.
Once the issue is selected, the CEO activist has to understand if there are key moments when speaking out might actually make a difference. Is it while a piece of legislation is being considered, or is it afterward?
We have observed that a CEO activist’s chances of blocking a particular policy are typically better than his or her chances of reversing legislation that has been enacted. As we have seen with the Republican Party’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in recent months, the U.S. legislative system was designed to be slow moving and deliberative. This institutional feature makes it difficult not only to pass sweeping new legislation but to repeal existing laws as well.
Also, consider the news cycle. As we noted earlier, being the first CEO to quit one of the president’s economic councils earned Frazier (and Merck) significant positive media coverage. When other CEOs quit in rapid succession over the next 48 hours, their stories were lumped together. Frazier’s actions will likely be remembered more than those of the CEOs who followed him. Of course, there was a downside to all the attention: President Trump struck back directly at Frazier, tweeting an insult and citing Merck’s responsibility for high drug prices. To date, there’s no evidence that this has hurt Merck’s business.
How to weigh in.
CEO activism differs from traditional corporate engagement in politics precisely because it is visible and high profile. The CEO needs to decide whether he or she wants all that attention or if the cause would be better advanced by a coalition of CEOs. More than 160 CEOs and business leaders chose to sign a letter by the Human Rights Campaign opposing the North Carolina bathroom law. In taking this approach, they mitigated the risk of consumer backlash and amplified the newsworthiness and thus the impact of their activism. Collective action can also make it more difficult for critics to target individual corporate leaders and thus can be perceived as less risky. But it is slower by design and is likely to be less effective in associating a particular leader and corporate brand with a particular cause.
CEOs also may choose not to weigh in at all. Some leaders may feel that they do not understand the issue well enough, hold an unpopular view, or simply want to focus on other areas. All of those are credible reasons to hold back. But executives should expect that employees, the media, and other interested parties may ask why the CEO has not spoken out, and should be ready to explain the rationale.
The inside game.
It’s a good idea to make sure that internal stakeholders are aligned with CEO activism—or at least aware of it ahead of time. When Frazier was considering resigning from Trump’s economic council, he reached out to his board members, who subsequently defended his decision and praised his courage and integrity. Our interviews suggest that not all CEOs consult with their directors or employees before taking public stands, which may imperil their efforts.
Implications for Democracy
CEO activism may be giving businesses and their leaders even more influence in a political system in which their money can already buy access to power. Some people, including North Carolina’s lieutenant governor, who supported the bathroom bill while facing an onslaught of CEO activism, have gone further, characterizing it as corporate bullying. One Georgia state senator, who sponsored that state’s religious freedom bill, lamented, “Marc Benioff is the ringleader for big-business CEOs who use economic threats to exercise more power over public policy than the voters who use the democratic process.” From this perspective, CEO activism can be viewed as endangering democracy’s ideal that each citizen should have an equal say in influencing policy outcomes.
There is of course another angle on this that considers CEO activism within the current environment of political influence. As we’ve noted, CEO activism is an unusually transparent way for corporate leaders to try to affect policy—in contrast to behind-the-scenes efforts to work with legislators, trade associations, and think tanks. Because CEO activism is highly visible, employees, customers, and the media can decide how to respond to it. There is also a political divide here. (To be sure, certain controversies transcend politics.) Some progressives have been appreciative of recent CEO activism while decrying the activities of business leaders like the Koch brothers. As a result, many conservatives see a double standard at play. Most of the CEO activists have been espousing liberal views, but it remains to be seen how widespread activism from conservative business leaders would be received.
Though CEOs first have to decide whether they’re speaking for themselves or their organizations, they should recognize that any statements they make will nonetheless be associated with their companies. We have seen almost no CEOs successfully separate themselves from their firms in this way. Given that, we advise setting up a rapid response team composed of representatives from the board, investors, senior management (including the chief communications officer), and employees to act as a kitchen cabinet on CEO activism. Seeking broad consensus across the organization could prevent CEO activism from being timely, which is often critical to attract attention to a message, but if the CEO can at least inform his or her cabinet about what to expect and why, it should greatly reduce the risk that key stakeholders will be unprepared for any backlash.
Predicting the reaction and gauging the results.
CEO activists should prepare thoughtful responses to those who disagree with them. After Target modified its bathroom policy to accommodate transgender customers, hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition in protest. The literature tells us that when easy alternatives to a product or service are available, boycotts are more effective. Target is particularly vulnerable in this regard. Thus it’s not surprising that the retail chain, which has many stores in politically conservative areas of the United States, has taken action to assuage the criticism by spending $20 million creating single-occupancy bathrooms in its stores. On the other hand, Nordstrom’s customer base of affluent urban women did not threaten to abandon the upscale department store chain when President Trump attacked it for distancing itself from Ivanka Trump’s apparel line.
Companies generally lack good data on the political beliefs of their customers, but this information would be useful in assessing potential reactions to CEO activism. CEOs and their companies are likely to know more about the political beliefs of their employees and can better predict their responses, however. Will employees rally to the cause or go public with their disapproval—as more than a thousand IBM employees did after CEO Virginia Rometty met with President Trump?
CEO activism also risks a backlash from politicians. Trump has tweeted his disagreement with numerous companies and their management decisions, marshaling millions of Twitter followers and creating public relations headaches. CEOs and their teams should be gaming out the likely response from supporters and critics in their own organizations, the media, and the political sphere.
It’s imperative to hold postmortems, too, and answer the question: Did I make a difference? Metrics to assess the impact of activism should be established ahead of time, whether they be retweets, media mentions, public opinion polls, or actual policy shifts. Big swings in public opinion are rare, so it makes sense to set realistic goals, track intermediate outcomes, and measure progress over time.
CEO activism could become a first-order strategic issue. As more and more business leaders choose to speak out on contentious political and social matters, ceos will increasingly be called on to help shape the debate about such issues. Many will decide to stay out of the fray, but they should still expect to be peppered with questions from employees, the media, and other stakeholders about the hot-button topics of day.
We believe CEOs need a playbook in this new world. To effectively engage in CEO activism, they should select issues carefully, reflect on the best times and approaches to get involved, consider the potential for backlash, and measure results. By following these guidelines, CEO activists can be more effective on the issues they care about most.
A version of this article appeared in the January–February 2018 issue (pp.78–89) of Harvard Business Review.
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