Why CEOs Should Speak Out (More)

A study says more Americans want executives to be activists. It's a role association leaders are well equipped for.

CEOs are powerful.

This is not the no-brainer statement it might seem to be. Every CEO has a different leadership style and a different concept of the scope of their power as leaders. Even within the boundaries of a the association community, the range is wide, from caretaker leaders who rarely stray far from the path established by their boards to megaphones for their association’s industry to spokepersons on national issues well beyond their association’s own work.

CEOs need to be prepared to navigate these uncharted waters, whether they remain silent or not.

And it appears that Americans are pretty much OK with all of it. According to a new study by the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, a substantial number of Americans feel that CEOs not only have the power to influence government, but that they ought to speak out on policy issues, not just within their organizations but beyond it.

Some of the findings from the study, produced by Weber Shandwick with KRC Research, based on a representative sample of U.S. adults:

  • 42 percent of respondents are aware that CEOs have taken stands on “hotly debated current issues” such as climate change, gun control, and same-sex marriage, and 38 percent look favorably on that activity.
  • 48 percent believe that such outspokenness has at least some influence on government—a 10-point leap from last year’s survey.
  • 46 percent expect to see an increase in “CEO activists” in the coming years, but there’s a partisan split in who wants to see it. Thirty-six percent of those identifying as Democrats say CEOs should stick to their own businesses, while 68 percent of those identifying as Republican say so.

All of which suggests that CEO activism is the “new normal,” as the New York Times‘ coverage of the survey put it. I don’t take that to mean that association execs need to leap at the nearest microphone to speak out on the latest issue at hand. But it does make a case that CEOs can, first, recognize the moral authority that their status gives them. And second, it suggests that people who engage with you—customers, members, attendees, stakeholders—have limited patience with organizations neglecting the ways that big issues affect them.

That’s been the case with contentious issues like immigration, where companies like Microsoft have risen to the defense of DACA recipients. But the kind of things that the survey identifies as issues ripe for CEOs to speak out on tend to be less prone to sharply split opinions: job training, equal pay, sexual harassment, data privacy, healthcare.

As the study shows, there are risks attached to any kind of speaking out—criticism from employees, customers, the roiling seas of social media. But the good news here is that associations are well equipped to do this kind of work, even if they’re not one that actively lobbies.  In 2016, even before the fractiousness of that year’s presidential campaign became apparent, associations were adjusting their advocacy strategies to include more outreach, storytelling, and connection with members who could back up their messages.

Associations have developed those muscles for their own communities, but they can be hesitant to use them on a wider stage. Sometimes there are reasonable internal reasons for that. But if the thing holding you back is fear of losing members for speaking out, the study suggests that there’s a cost for not speaking out as well.

“While most CEOs are not accustomed to participating in the political arena, they and their companies need to be prepared to navigate these uncharted waters, whether they remain silent or not,” says Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky in the report. No executive should feel pressed to say things they don’t want to say—in advocacy, as in leadership in general, authenticity counts. But for leaders who have the urge to develop that capacity to speak out, there’s literally no time like the present.

How has your organization spoken out on issues beyond its mission? Share your experiences in the comments.

(vchal/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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