Corporate Activism Rises

August 21, 2016

Corporate Activism Rises

An interesting new study recently surfaced showing how major corporations are under pressure to weigh in on social issues —Taking a Stand: How Corporations Speak Out on Social Issues, from the Public Affairs Council. Nearly 100 companies across several sectors found that in the past three years, 6 in 10 experienced rising stakeholder pressure to speak up and out on social issues such as discrimination, sustainability, education and human rights. Interestingly, nearly three quarters said they expect this demand to speak up on societal issues to increase over the next few years (14% significantly). “Many of these social issues are now viewed as business issues,” said Public Affairs Council President Doug Pinkham. “They affect a company’s ability to attract and retain talent and meet the expectations of customers. Other areas of involvement also demonstrate the belief that it’s possible for a firm to be financially successful while protecting the environment and supporting local communities.”

High percentages of companies said they were most involved recently in efforts to protect the environment (74%), end discrimination/restrictions based on sexual orientation (59%) or gender (54%), improve access to quality education (59%), protect human rights abroad (49%) and end discrimination/restrictions based on gender identity (52%).

Similar to what we have observed in our survey on CEO Activism, much of this demand recently has centered on LGBT issues. In their survey, over one half said their companies have been involved on this issue in some way.

According to the survey, the groups with the most influence over a company’s decision to get involved are senior management, employees and customers. Other stakeholders with influence include advocacy groups and shareholders. Employees definitely have a hand in influencing their senior management about speaking up and this trend will only grow as well.

Publicly traded corporations, more so than privately held companies, believe that there is growing pressure to speak out on societal issues and are more likely to be engaged. They also found that US-headquartered companies, more so than non-US headquartered companies, are under pressure to take a stand. I have found few examples of companies and CEOs taking such stands on controversial issues outside the US when the issues are not related to their core business.

The most common strategies used by companies in their social issue advocacy efforts have been to join a coalition, lobby at the state/local level, distribute a press release or public statement, lobby at the federal level, sign a petition, publish a formal policy position or conduct media interviews. From the work we have been doing, it is still just a handful of the vocal few who are taking to the bully pulpit as CEOs to speak out on social injustice.

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I was pleased to see this research because it only adds to our understanding of this increasing reputational dynamic of corporate activism.

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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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