CEO Activism in Millennials’ Eyes

July 29, 2017

CEO Activism in Millennials’ Eyes

As you know if you follow me, I am particularly intrigued by this newest strain of CEO visibility and engagement which has emerged and is rapidly evolving – CEO activism. We at Weber Shandwick along with KRC Research have been examining this phenomenon for some time now and producing original research on the topic. We just released our second survey among 1,021 Americans on their opinions on CEO activism which are especially interesting since they provide new insights on the Millennial generation. The newest survey demonstrates that overall sentiment about CEO activism has not changed much since we did our earlier survey one year ago. BUT Millennials, the most coveted demographic segment by employers and companies looking to sell more products/services are the generation that are most in favor of CEOs being proactive on hot-button societal issues. In size, Millennials have now surpassed Boomers so I’d say that their opinions count. Here are the major findings from our research conducted with KRC Research, CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite, which you can find in the report and in the slide deck, all on our web site.

  • Nearly one-half of Millennials (47%) believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society, far outpacing the sentiments of Gen Xers and Boomers (28% each).
  • An even larger six in 10 Millennials (56%) say that business leaders have a greater responsibility to speak out now than in years past.
  • Half of Millennials (51%) say they would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue they agree with. This rate has increased since 2016 (46%).
  • More than four in 10 Millennials (44%) say they would be more loyal to their organization if their own CEO took a public position on a hotly debated current issue. While there is some risk – 19% say they would be less loyal if their CEO spoke out. Only 16% of Gen Xers and 18% of Boomers would be more loyal if their own CEO spoke out, while two in 10 of each generation (18% and 20%, respectively) would be less loyal.
  • Half of Millennials (50%) think CEO activism has an influence on the government compared to 31% of both Gen Xers and Boomers.

What we have learned is that Millennials, more than other generations, expect CEOs to champion their values. They are holding CEOs accountable to what they say they stand for and who they are. For companies looking to increase sales, recruitment, innovation and word of mouth, Millennials’ bias toward CEO activism should not be overlooked. This generation is heavily purpose-driven and is already changing the game when it comes to how we work and where people want to work.

The research also provides guidelines for CEOs considering whether to speak out or not. Without a doubt, there are risks along with rewards so CEOs and their companies have to be careful about what issue they choose to speak out about and who they might be neglecting or overlooking in their comments. Here are but a few that we cover in the report.

  1. Don’t ignore the slippery generational slope. Millennials are moving into the next generation of leadership and they do not want their CEOs to be bystanders.Estimate the price of silence. Millennials are watching.
  2. Be fully prepared to commit time and company resources.
  3. Look in the mirror to make sure your organization practices what it preaches. You will be held accountable.
  4. Consider the channels, messages and tone of voice used when speaking out. Ensure the reasons behind the CEO’s stance are clearly articulated and vetted.
  5. Strength in numbers such as petitions, coalitions, etc. might be a viable solution to a steady drumbeat of contentious political and social issues.
  6. Have a crisis preparedness plan for a potential social media firestorm.
  7. Expect to be asked to speak up the next time a hot button issue arises.
  8. Develop a thick skin and anticipate criticism.
  9. Establish a firm link between the issue, your company’s values and its business.
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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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