Should CEOs get political?

The protests that have erupted over George Floyd’s murder have prompted a corporate chorus of support.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 02 Jun 2020

You don’t park your humanity when you arrive at the office car park nor, perhaps more pertinently these days, when you log in to your computer in the morning. There is more to a human being than a job title. 

So when an outrage occurs, such as the murder of George Floyd in the United States, which has acted a lightning rod for long-standing tensions about racial injustice there and around the world, it would be odd for a business leader not to have an opinion. 

But it does raise a difficult question for that leader. Should they offer their opinion publicly, in their capacity as chief executive? Should their business itself take a stance?

On the one hand, even having that conversation can seem somehow dirty, as though the most important thing about a serious social or political issue is what your messaging should be or how it makes you look. It’s really not all about you.

But as many of the placards held by protesters read, “silence is compliance”. There are some social issues that should not in good conscience be ignored. If the UK saw the rise of a modern Nazi party, one would hope that any decent person with a public voice would use it to see off a threat to our common values.  

The trouble is, it isn’t always straightforward when a given issue is one of those that demands you speak up. 

For example, many companies took a side on Brexit, an issue that so many people felt very strongly about, but that nonetheless divided the country almost straight down the middle. Should that have been a matter for businesses to take a stance on, when such a stance could alienate some employees or customers? How widely-held does a belief have to be before it’s ‘permitted’ to support it?

It’s also a minefield for businesses to speak out on a matter that is not deeply embedded in its own priorities. Actions speak louder than words, and people will remember them. This piece in our sister title PRWeek details several of the more awkward call-outs of hypocrisy, but I’ll include just one here, from model Monroe Bergdorf, who claims L’Oreal previously dropped her for speaking out over racism:

This isn’t to say that companies or chief executives should remain silent because life would be easier that way (though it probably would be easier). What it is to say is that you need to think very carefully and examine yourself before you open your mouth. 

Sadly, this is not the zeitgeist of the 21st century. Social media has trained people to expect others’ opinions on matters big or small. It’s trained us to expect brands - and by extension businesses - to have an opinion too. 

Indeed, good social media practice for companies involves imbuing a ‘human voice’ to their tweets and posts, as a way of engaging with their customers. That’s absolutely fine of course - if such humanity is an authentic reflection of your culture, rather than a cheap masquerade to improve your net promoter score.

Ultimately, there is no right answer to this question. There is a moral as well as a business judgment that has to be made before getting involved in social or political issues, so it will clearly depend on who you are and what the issue is.

But at the very least, if this causes you to re-examine what your values are, and whether you’re living up to them, then that won’t be a bad thing. 

Image credit: SOPA Images / Contributor via Getty Images

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