Published 4 years ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: FotagrafieLink (via Pixabay)
Is CEO activism going to represent authentic commentary leading to constructive social impact, or will it simply be a public relations tool? To find out at least half the story, we sat down with a leader from one such PR firm, Victoria Baxter, of the Social Impact Practice at Weber Shandwick.
There is currently a great deal of discussion, in these
and elsewhere, about the trend toward activist CEOs. No less a business
bellwether than the Harvard Business Review has said, via two related
researchers, that it could “never have imagined how significant this phenomenon
could become” — so much so that “PR firms are now building entire practices
around CEO activism.”
All of which raises the question: Is CEO activism going to represent authentic
commentary leading to constructive social impact, or will it simply be a public
relations tool? To find out at least half the story, we sat down with a leader
from one such PR firm: Victoria Baxter, of the Social Impact Practice at
Victoria Baxter: We work with purpose-driven brands on social issues;
companies from across the globe, as well as nonprofits, foundations and some
government agencies. And when we define social impact, we look to standards like
the UN’s Sustainable Development
Goals as we help clients
that could include anything from access to
sustainability, management of resources, good education, the
… a real range of issues.
VB: When you’re coming out on an issue, it needs to be one that feels
authentic to your
that feels aligned with the values that you've always held, or the values that
you want to hold as a company.
Unlock customer insights on sustainability & your brand’s unique performance! Submit your brand (or any brand) into the 2024 annual study and receive unparalleled insights on customer perception of that brand’s performance. Benchmark how your customers rate your brand on social and environmental sustainability and overall brand trust, while seeing how your brand compares to others in the study. Space is limited! The deadline to become part of the study is January 15, 2024.
we’ve found that the issues that are farther away from your business are a bit
more dangerous for companies to take a stand on. People tend to say, “Why are
you, as X company, taking a stand on issue Y?” So, sticking closer to home is
always a better thing.
I think a lot of companies, too, need to make sure that if they are going to
speak out on an issue, that they first make sure their own house is in
Do they have products that contradict something that they might be saying? Do
they have practices that contradict the CEO’s statements?
It’s important to look across the company before speaking out, to make sure
you’re good on a particular issue. Because people are savvy; they’ll call you
out on social media, which is an accelerant to conversation, good and bad. And
while most of the attention has been paid to the down side of that, we’ve done a
lot of research, as well, on the phenomenon of “buycotting” — the opposite of
boycotting — [where] you as a consumer might proactively buy more from a company
that aligns with your values. And you may not buy at all from a company you feel
VB: Another thing we’ve found is that you really want to understand your
employees, where they’re coming from and what they’re thinking about, before you
For instance, in 2017 some companies were participating in presidential
much in the same way that they would have under any administration. But after
the last election, it was a crazy year and companies had to navigate an
onslaught of issues. Employees started to look around and say to their CEOs,
“Why were you sitting at that table? Why were we participating in that?”
I think for some organizations, it was surprising that there was such a vocal
backlash. And obviously, everyone cites the Google
as a huge example of a wake-up call for industry — that employees are watching
what you’re doing, they care, and they want to make sure you’re doing right.
CEOs need to keep in touch with the pulse of their
they need to keep asking the important questions.
VB: I think they are. The studies that I've seen have shown, for the first
time in a long time, that trust in the private sector has gone
And that's pretty meaningful.
We’re here in Washington, D.C., and I think there are a lot of people very
frustrated with political gridlock. Consequently, the idea that these companies
can actually make positive change is very appealing.
We’ve seen that with some corporations taking on climate change. While the
government pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, many companies are still
continuing with their commitments to track against what would have been their
obligations under the Accord. And they're making progress — there's a real sense
that a lot of change can happen, and that it can be led by the private sector.
VB: It’s still applicable. If you’ve got a company with 150 people in it,
and a regional business, you still need to be ready to speak out on issues. You
have to have a clear sense of what your positions are, no matter the size of
your company. What are your values, your culture, your sense of purpose? If you
know that — then, if someone comes and asks you a question about an issue, you
can make a thoughtful analysis of what you think is important for your business
and for your people.
VB: We don’t think it’ll be just a millennial bump. It’s most likely that
the following generation will also be very interested in what CEOs have to say
on issues. And they’re much more likely to value purpose and a sense of mission
than necessarily money and earning an income. Everything we hear is that they
prize authenticity. They want to understand the people behind the companies.
That’s why CEO activism, I always expect, will be more accepted among this
group. But it’s crucial for companies to understand that this cannot be
So, CEOs need to know that people will be watching them, that they’ll want to
hear from them – but only in the most authentic ways.
Published Apr 1, 2019 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Chuck Kent is Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, an executive content creation company.