CEOs are getting more political, but consumers aren't buying it

CEOs are getting more political, but consumers aren't buying it
By Howard Schultz  July 3, 2016 6:00 AM

Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz has spoken out on gun control, race relations and the "cynicism, despair, division, exclusion, fear and yes -- indifference" in America today.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a developer conference this year that "I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people as they label others," even if he didn't directly mention GOP nominee Donald Trump.

And Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff has become a "ringleader," in the words of one state senator, of big-business executives who have opposed state legislation that limits gay rights.

CEOs have increasingly begun taking on social issues, shedding long-held fears of offending certain groups of employees, customers or investors for taking risky political stances. In doing so, companies often cite a philosophy that it's simply the right thing to do.

But a new survey released last week from the public relations firm Weber Shandwick and KRC Research finds that the average person doesn't see it that way. The survey, which looked at consumer views of what it calls "The Dawn of CEO Activism," reveals that 36% cite media attention as the reason for CEOs' vocal viewpoints more than anything else.

The next most-cited reason (21% of respondents) was to build the CEO's reputation. A similar percentage said CEOs were speaking out to be "open and honest about how they personally feel about an issue."

Just 14% of the 1,027 adults surveyed thought a reason CEOs were getting more political was that they wanted to "do what is right for society."

Even if CEOs really are trying to use corporate muscle to make broader changes or do something to protect employee rights, "that message is not getting communicated," said Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick's chief reputation strategist. "The motivations behind why CEOs speak up have to be more clearly [expressed] if this trend continues."

That could very well happen, because despite consumers' cynicism, the research also found an encouraging link -- if a nuanced one -- between socially active CEOs and the public's views. In general, more people saw CEOs as favorable if they took a public stance on hotly debated current issues. But if the issue was seen as being wholly unrelated to the company's business, the results flipped, with more having an unfavorable view.

In addition, millennials -- now the largest generation in the workplace and a demographic marketers salivate over -- are especially drawn to CEO activism, with significantly more than other generations saying they would be more loyal to an employer if the CEO spoke out publicly on a controversial issue.

Yet when it comes to their plans to buy anything from companies with more political CEOs, the results are mixed. Forty percent of respondents said they would be more likely to purchase something from a company if they agreed with the CEO's public views. But 45% said they would be less likely to buy if they disagree with him or her.

Still, while CEOs may be speaking out more on political issues or social policies, Gaines-Ross says political endorsements are likely to remain something of a taboo. CEOs have long given money to political candidates, and plenty of business leaders do speak out. But it remains relatively rare to see sitting CEOs of Fortune 500 companies vocally endorse a particular presidential candidate.

Still, Gaines-Ross says she also believes that the overall trend of greater CEO activism will continue, with top business leaders becoming even more politically engaged and socially active on hot-button issues.

"I think it will grow in time," she said. "Employees and company cultures are so important today that CEOs are going to take on some of these social issues in the name of their employees."

Jena McGregor writes a column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.


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