CEO Activism: The Issues Americans Do and Don’t Want to Hear About

July 31, 2017

Some 35% of American adults believe that CEOs have a responsibility to speak about issues that are important to society, and 42% believe that CEOs now have more of a responsibility to speak out than they used to, according to a study from Weber Shandwick [pdf] conducted by KRC Research. But if you’re targeting Millennials (18-36), CEO activism seems more important: 47% believe CEOs should make their opinions heard, and 56% feel that such responsibility has increased.

Earlier this year, a YouGov survey found half of Millennials (18-34) approving of brands taking a public stance on social issues, as opposed to only about one-quarter of Baby Boomers.

Overall, slightly more Americans are approving of CEO activism than not (31% and 27%, respectively), per the Weber Shandwick survey. That said, CEOs might need to be wary about the issues they get involved in: 34% are less favorable to CEOs taking public positions on hotly debated current issues not directly related to the company’s business, as opposed to 24% who are more favorable to that sort of activism.

Which Issues Are OK – And Which Are Too Sensitive?

There seems to be some strong consensus on the issues that CEOs should speak freely about, which are mostly related to workplace issues.

At the top of the list, 70% believe that CEOs and other business leaders should express their opinions about job/skills training, versus just 11% who believe they shouldn’t.

Close behind, 67% feel that CEOs should speak out about equal pay in the workplace, versus 15% who feel that this isn’t appropriate.

It’s worth noting that consumers identify the treatment of employees as their top building block of trust in corporations, so these do seem to be important issues for CEOs to address.

Healthcare coverage and maternity/paternity leave are also among the issues that people are strongly in favor of CEOs addressing.

By contrast, people generally don’t seem to want CEOs to express their opinion on issues such as immigration, LGBT rights, gun control and refugees.

Interestingly, Boomers are the most favorable to CEOs speaking out about issues in the workplace, while Millennials are most apt to want CEOs to express their opinions about more sensitive topics such as gun control, immigration and LGBT rights. Even so, fewer than 40% feel that these are within the purview of CEOs’ activism.

Millennials Say They’ll Reward Agreement With Spending

Speaking out is one thing, but being on the right side of a polarizing topic is another. Overall, 38% of American adults say that they’ll be more likely to buy from a company when they agree with the CEO who speaks out on a hotly debated current issue. That figure jumps to 51% among Millennials, while falling to 30% among Boomers (53-71).

The other side of the coin is that 51% of Boomers and 47% of Gen Xers (37-52) will be less likely to buy from a company if they disagree with the CEO’s stance.

Of course, with trust in business on the decline, there’s plenty of skepticism about why CEOs even speak out in the first place:

  • A leading 34% (fairly consistent across generations) believe that CEOs take public positions to get attention in the media, compared to;
  • Fewer than 1 in 5 (18%) who believe they do so to be open and honest about how they personally feel about an issue.

So there’s that…

About the Data: The results are based on a survey conducted by KRC Research among 1,021 US adults ages 18 and older.


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