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Nearly one-half of Millennials (47 percent) believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society, far outpacing the sentiments of Gen Xers and Boomers (28 percent each). An even larger six in 10 Millennials (56 percent) say that business leaders have a greater responsibility to speak out now than in years past. This is according to CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite, a report commissioned by global communications and engagement firm Weber Shandwick in partnership with KRC Research. This study follows The Dawn of CEO Activism, among one of the first reports published in 2016 that identified the risks and rewards for companies when their chief executives speak out on hot-button issues.


“Over the past 12 months, the climate in the United States has changed dramatically as business and policy have intersected more deeply than ever before,” said Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick. “When dozens of CEOs spoke up about the new administration’s decisions regarding issues like climate change and travel to the U.S. from select countries, for example, social media ignited, protests erupted and media attention exploded. Navigating how to communicate a company’s point of view in this environment is becoming increasingly complex and important. Future generations will only pay closer attention to how companies communicate around their values when it comes to deciding where to work or who to purchase from.”

Millennials’ Buying Decisions Increasingly Influenced by CEO Activism

CEO activism positively affects Millennials’ purchase decisions, according to the survey. Half of Millennials (51 percent) say they would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue they agree with. This rate has increased since 2016 (46 percent). This form of “voting by wallet” is not to be ignored as companies fiercely compete for customers. By comparison, CEO activism is less likely to affect the purchase decisions of Gen Xers and Boomers.

Millennial Employees Most Loyal to CEO Activist Bosses

The war for talent is hyper-competitive and critical to successful performance. In deciding whether to speak out, it is imperative to consider the effect that CEO activism can have on attracting and retaining talent. More than four in 10 Millennials (44 percent) say they would be more loyal to their organization if their own CEO took a public position on a hotly debated current issue. While there is some risk – 19 percent say they would be less loyal if their CEO spoke out – loyalty outweighs disloyalty by more than twice as much.

“Millennials, more than other generations, expect CEOs to champion their values,” said Micho Spring, global corporate practice chair of Weber Shandwick. “Their early schooling in social media has extended beyond their ability to influence social movements to impacting their workplace and its leadership.”

For Gen Xers and Boomers, the scales tip toward less loyalty. Only 16 percent of Gen Xers and 18 percent of Boomers would be more loyal if their own CEO spoke out, while two in 10 of each generation (18 percent and 20 percent, respectively) would be less loyal. Before taking a stand on an issue, it is important to address the perspectives and concerns of this older segment of the workforce to better understand what would or would not shift them toward more positive perceptions of their companies.

The Risk of Silence

Weber Shandwick conducts ongoing CEO activism research to provide companies with insights into what the public expects from business leaders today. While our survey shows that Millennials are favorable toward CEOs speaking out, Weber Shandwick’s audits of company reactions to recent policy decisions revealed that many CEOs are also not responding.

This latest survey also asked consumers what they think the risks are of not speaking out. Half of Americans (47 percent) believe the biggest risk of a CEO not speaking out on a hotly debated issue is some form of criticism, whether it comes from the media (30 percent), customers (26 percent), employees (21 percent) or the government (9 percent). Top perceived risks do not differ by generation.

Additional Findings

In addition to the results outlined above, our research also finds the following:

  • Millennials are more likely to have heard of CEO activism (48 percent) than Gen Xers (29 percent) and Boomers (35 percent).
  • Millennials are more favorable in general of CEO activism (42 percent) than Gen Xers (25 percent) and Boomers (24 percent). They also exhibit favorability even when an issue is unrelated to the company’s direct business (37 percent Millennials, 19 percent Gen Xers, 17 percent Boomers).
  • Half of Millennials (50 percent) think CEO activism has an influence on the government compared to 31 percent of both Gen Xers and Boomers. Perhaps that is a strong reason for why they favor CEOs taking a stand.
  • Millennials perceive the primary reason CEOs take a public position on an issue is to get attention in the media (36 percent). This is followed by selling more products or services (22 percent), showing how the issue aligns with their corporate values (21 percent), and building their company’s reputation (21 percent).
  • Millennials are most likely to have taken an action because of a CEO’s stance on an issue (74 percent) followed by Gen Xers (63 percent) and Boomers (55 percent). The top action taken by Millennials is talking about the CEO’s stance with people they know. Given Gen Xers’ and Boomers’ general displeasure with CEO activism, it is not surprising that they register their displeasure by boycotting a CEO activist’s company.

“Our research on CEO activism continues to show strong enthusiasm among the Millennial generation for CEOs speaking out,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist of Weber Shandwick. “For companies looking to increase sales, recruitment, innovation and word of mouth, Millennials’ bias toward CEO activism should not be overlooked. This generation is heavily purpose-driven and is already changing the game when it comes to how we work and where people want to work.”

A Guide to CEO Activism

CEOs speaking out on hotly debated current issues comes with both risks and rewards, and the generational gap we revealed in response to CEO activism makes these factors even more pronounced. Based on our study, Weber Shandwick identified 15 strategies that CEOs and their companies should consider when approaching activism, 10 of which are below. 

  1. Don’t ignore the slippery generational slope. Millennials are moving into the next generation of leadership and they do not want their CEOs to be bystanders.
  2. Estimate the price of silence. Millennials are watching.
  3. Be fully prepared to commit time and company resources.
  4. Look in the mirror to make sure your organization practices what it preaches. You will be held accountable.
  5. Consider the channels, messages and tone of voice used when speaking out. Ensure the reasons behind the CEO’s stance are clearly articulated and vetted.
  6. Strength in numbers such as petitions, coalitions, etc. might be a viable solution to a steady drumbeat of contentious political and social issues.
  7. Have a crisis preparedness plan for a potential social media firestorm.
  8. Expect to be asked to speak up the next time a hot button issue arises.
  9. Develop a thick skin and anticipate criticism.
  10. Establish a firm link between the issue, your company’s values and its business.

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