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Marketing and Comms
The Year of the Civic CEO

New mediums of communication, power and trust produced the Civic CEO, and she is here to stay.

In 2018, an unusual cast of characters made headlines in the prickliest social and political debates of our era. CEOs, traditionally fearful of politics, took sides on gun control, immigration, privacy, police brutality and climate change, among other issues. Many rallied their customers to sign petitions, tweet at lawmakers, and flood with comments.

How did executives go from avoiding politics in the 20th century to leading civic activism?

New mediums of communication, power and trust produced the Civic CEO, and she is here to stay. For reasons I’ll explore, business leaders will face increasing pressure to engage with the civic debates of our time. In 2019, CEOs who shy from this responsibility will find themselves unable to build or lead communities.

Staging the digital world

In 1985, media scholar Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book that explores how television, then the dominant communication technology, changed public discourse. Wrote Postman: “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore — and this is the critical point — how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.”

TV-style engagement had spread into everyday life. “In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes,” Postman said, “Americans no longer talk to each other; they entertain each other.” In TV commercials, brands still try to entertain us into buying their stuff.

Postman passed in 2003 and thus never saw how the Internet, mobile screens and social media displaced television. But his lesson is still pertinent. If digital technologies are increasingly how our culture knows about itself, they also shape how we stage our world. And that ability to stage the world is a source of power for CEOs.

Power, upside-down

In their book, New Power, authors Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms argue that ubiquitous communication technology — which Postman would argue is shaping our discourse — is changing the nature of power. “Old power models ask of us only that we comply (pay your taxes, do your homework) or consume,” they write. “New power models demand and allow for more: that we share ideas, create new content (as on YouTube) or assets (as on Etsy), even shape a community…”

Consider #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. Anyone can share using the hashtags, anyone can tell an untold story, anyone can shape the community — they are self-organizing; no one directed victims of discrimination or harassment to speak out, and no one can stop them.

Perhaps these movements reflect what, to borrow Postman’s words, our culture now knows about itself. The digital model taught us that it is courageous to share vulnerable stories and deeply held beliefs, with or without the blessing of old-power gatekeepers. Digital life taught us the intrinsic value of building an audience into a community eager and willing to act upon its convictions. It taught us that power isn’t a matter of being elected to office or getting on television. Rather, it’s a matter of aggregating and amplifying individual voices.

Trust in the 21st century

Postman, were he alive, might suggest Americans no longer talk to each other — they tweet at each other. Politicians and businesspeople are staging communications based on social technology and the dynamics of new power. If companies no longer can force anyone to comply and consume, they need an alternative. They need trust.

A CEO, regardless of her brand’s reputation, can no longer entertain an audience into buying her goods, as she would have during the TV era. Reviews on Yelp, Google and Amazon are far more trustworthy than what the CEO of a brand says about its products and services.

However, if that CEO publishes a blog post about gun control, #MeToo, minimum wage or energy independence, there is nothing to trust or not trust (besides the facts). Rather, we question whether the perspective is right or wrong. Do we agree or disagree? Does this CEO align with my views on a controversial issue?

Suppose a sustainability-minded CEO uses her platform to save national monuments, challenge environmental deregulation and mobilize the public behind her. We don’t feel like we’re being told to consume. Instead, this new-power model asks us to respond — by sharing ideas, creating content and shaping communities, as Heimans and Timms suggest.

The civic community

CEOs are leaning into social issues, becoming moral authorities on topics ranging from Internet access to privacy. They cannot hide; indeed, they are expected to comment on social issues and act. The public demands Civic CEOs.

Customers, however, are trying to figure out how they fit into this dynamic. Are they just proverbial “consumers” who act through their wallets?

No. As I argued, they are collaborators. In 2019, brands will not win by telling passive buyers how clean their products are. They will not win by marketing recycled materials, carbon offsets and cruelty-free products. They will win by including a community in their social mission.

“To tweet at each other” is to call upon our peers to be aware and to be civically engaged. Whatever social media may lack as a conversational medium, it excels at mobilization and action. Social media created the Civic CEO, who will create new civic communities in turn.