Published 5 years ago.
About a 5 minute read.
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
among other issues. Many rallied their customers to sign petitions, tweet at
lawmakers, and flood Regulations.gov with comments.
How did executives go from avoiding politics in the 20th century to leading
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
In 1985, media scholar Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to
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
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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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Published Jan 20, 2019 7pm EST / 4pm PST / 12am GMT / 1am CET
Jeb Ory is cofounder and CEO of Phone2Action.