Stand Up or Lay Low?

political and social activism

CEOs mull the merits of political and social activism.

Last fall Nike made big news with a commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick, the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem before games to protest racial inequality and police brutality. The spot included other athletes who’ve made bold moves for their reasons. So, the overall stand Nike was taking was that it’s important to take a stand, but including Kaepernick sent a strongly implied message.

Days after the 2018 mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Bank of America announced it would re-examine its relationship with manufacturers of the style of weapon the shooter used. Bank of America Chief Executive Officer Brian Moynihan was later quoted as saying, “It’s not exactly political activism, but it is action on issues beyond business.”

Socially Conscious While Making Smart Business Decisions

A growing number of corporations and CEOs are at least talking beyond business by going public with their positions on social and political issues, especially issues that seem, more than ever, to be pushing our collective buttons. Two executives we spoke with have varying degrees of comfort with how much to say when they talk. But whether or not they share their opinions, they agree that being socially conscious while still making smart business decisions is critical.

“Regardless of party affiliation, universally we want to be socially responsible,” says Wendy Yurgo, CEO of Las Vegas-based Metrics Global, a supplier company to the direct selling industry.

Jeff Bell, CEO of Ada, Oklahoma-based LegalShield, says the “very nature” of LegalShield’s business makes the company’s positions on many issues clear. “We wish to provide equal access to the liberty, equality, opportunity and justice that every human deserves,” he says. So, the company “strongly advocates” for a range of issues, including responsible gun ownership; freedom of speech; and equality regardless of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. Bell believes that these clear commitments have helped LegalShield set records for membership, commissions and corporate revenue.

CEO Survey Says…

Many CEOs still prefer not to share their views on matters that don’t directly relate to their business. In an Annenberg Center for Public Relations survey 60 percent of CEOs said they’re unlikely to publicly take sides on social issues in the near future. Most said they would stick to messages about their products, services and how they’re different from their competitors.

Speaking up on controversial topics feels inappropriate to Yurgo. “I do not take and have not taken political stances publicly, as a rule,” she says. “My private political positions are not really relevant to my clients.”

“I do not believe that corporations should take political stands. Corporations, by definition, are a collection of individuals who will have their own individual opinions and positions. Each individual should be allowed to express their own position without feeling they are at odds with their employer,” said CEO of Xyngular’s Russell Fletcher. “For this reason, I try very hard to separate my personal political, social, or religious opinions or beliefs from my role as CEO. I want anyone, regardless of whether or not they agree with me politically or socially, to feel welcomed in our corporate culture, and to feel confident and comfortable using our products or engaging with our opportunity. I am personally very politically active, but I do my best to not let that activity reflect for good or evil on my company.”

However, some research finds that consumers and employees want top execs to take sides. Nearly half of Millennials responding to a Harvard Business Review survey said they would feel increased loyalty toward their CEO if he or she took a position on a controversial topic.

Finding the Right Balance

Bell’s perspective on CEO activism has some nuance that might help executives who don’t want to keep their opinions completely to themselves but prefer to err on the apolitical side. “You can advocate for immigration reform without taking a stance on a border wall,” he says. “You can advocate for an end to deadly force during arrests without commenting on a specific circumstance.”

Both Yurgo and Bell say that their overall goal as CEOs is to provide associates and clients with the opportunity to be successful, so minding their own store is vital. “We are blessed with being in the position to serve an incredible industry of amazing entrepreneurs who trust us with their creations,” Yurgo says. “For us, the focus is to serve them so they may thrive.”

Passion for a cause that distracts from smart decisions can compromise that focus; Bell says: “If a company is socially responsible but bankrupts, it is a failure. There is a balance for all companies, and real leadership finds that balance.”

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