PUBLIC Speaking: Why CEO Activism Is Not A Marketing Tactic

According to the Harvard Business Review, CEO activism has been on the rise for years and, with the current political climate, it’s becoming more prevalent. We’ve seen Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Howard Schultz of Starbucks take a public stance on controversial issues like race relations and gender equality. These issues may seem like they are unrelated to the company’s core business, but the issues speak to their stakeholders and have the ability to drive interest in the company and, subsequently, business.

As this becomes more of a trend, it may be something CEOs consider as a way to share their personal and brand message. But, this type of communication is not for every company, not for every personality and certainly, not for the faint-of-heart.

CEOs who speak out are taking a stance that will be evaluated and judged by their employees, customers, shareholders and the media. Organizations must be prepared to defend their positioning and, in some cases, withstand the comments and criticism.

Similar to social action with citizens, organizational leaders need to be aware that they are actually courting controversy by weighing in on a contentious issue. As Howard Schultz said it with the Starbuck’s “Race Together” initiative, “This is not some marketing or PR exercise. This is to do one thing: use our national footprint and scale for good.”

There are a number of CEOs that have been leading this movement and we can look to them for key learnings. Here are a few things to consider:

Analyze your stakeholders (stake, not share).
As a CEO, you are the voice of an organization and taking stock of the people impacted by your statement will make your positioning stronger in the long-term. Having a communication strategy in place to prioritize your audience and communicate your message, will build a larger community of support for the cause at-hand and prepare you for potential pushback.

Put your heart into it.
Before making a statement, it is important that you have full context on the issue. You must be able to speak about it passionately and understand the nuisances of the problem. There is no quicker way to lose credibility than to back-track on your position or sound uneducated about the stance you’re taking.

Plan for the long-term.
Similar to any type of activism, understanding how to solve the problem and mapping out the steps is extremely important. You need to ask yourself, what can I do to drive change and how can I build out a plan to get there?

Business’ role in public discourse on policy issues seems to be changing and prominent executives can hold a true power. They can shift perceptions. They can shape public opinion. They are agents of change. Without their voice, we all stand to lose.

Jessica McGraw is Director of Communications at PUBLIC Inc.

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