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Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

Should company leaders speak out on sensitive social and political issues?

“I am going say, ‘it depends,’’' Martin Waxman, a LinkedIn Learning Instructor and a reputation management expert said. Adding that companies that simply jump on the bandwagon on particular stances without living up to their values, can erode their relationships with customers and employees.

The spark that ignited brand activism started with Nike in 2018 when the company chose quarterback Colin Kaepernick – who protested police brutality and racial inequality in the U.S. by kneeling during the national anthem at the start of NFL games – as the spokesperson for its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. In doing so, Nike’s brand stewards risked the company’s $30-billion brand asset.

At first, there were reports of people burning their sneakers and sales plummeting. But the tide turned and sales rebounded. In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, Nike again issued an urgent call to arms against racism.

“Nike showed they cannot only live by their values, but create value doing that,” said Mr. Waxman, who’s also an instructor at McMaster’s Master of Communication program. “This was a big moment for brand activism because Nike took a stance knowing fully well, they would alienate a certain base of their customers.”

More and more CEOs are arming themselves with figurative bullhorns and becoming vocal about issues that have nothing to do with their core businesses, but they think are essential part of their organizational values and reputation. Causes may include race-based violence, school shootings, LGBTQ rights or government actions and policies.

Silence can be costly

These days, silence can hurt the bottom line.

Case in point is when Uber customers ditched the brand in huge numbers in 2017 and flocked to rival Lyft when the former decided against taking a stance on Donald Trump’s policy to ban Muslims from certain countries. At that time, Lyft donated US$1-million to the anti-travel ban lobby and won praise from customers.

In June 2020, Dentsu, a public relations firm with offices in Canada and the Americas, found 54 per cent of those surveyed said they wouldn’t support a brand that remained silent on racial inequality. The company said there’s growing evidence brand activism is not a passing fad. Their research shows the proportion of millennial consumers supporting brands that speak out on social issues has grown from 63 per cent in June 2020 to 73 per cent in February 2021.

Actions have consequences

Sometimes, acts of activism can go awry. Take the case of Disney. When chief executive officer Bob Chapek opposed Florida’s Don’t Say Gay legislation – which forbids public school teachers from instructing on sexual orientation or gender identity – the blowback was swift. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ended Walt Disney World’s special taxing privileges. According to this story, Mr. Chapek was reluctant to weigh in, but was forced to take a public stance following pushback from LGBTQ employees of Pixar (a Walt Disney subsidiary).

The trend of activism has gained steam because of Gen Z employees putting pressure on their employers to act, said Morley Winograd, an expert on generational shifts with the University of Southern California.

“The younger generation recognizes that their company has a major impact on the world, and if their company was better – as in, more in line with their values – the world would be better,” said Winograd, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School Center on Communication Leadership and Policy in the article. “They also recognize the power they have as consumers, particularly of entertainment and all forms of entertainment consumption, which pretty much sums up Disney.”

What employees want

Results from the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, which annually measures public confidence in business, government and other institutions, are clear. According to the report, 81-per cent of respondents believe CEOs should be personally visible when discussing public policy with external stakeholders or the work their company has done to benefit society.

Sixty per cent said when they are considering a job at a company, they would like the CEO to speak out publicly about controversial social and political issues.

The survey consisted of 30-minute online interviews with 36,000 respondents in 28 countries.

Advice for CEOs

Mr. Waxman’s advice for CEOs who want to wear an activist hat includes asking them to thoroughly research the issue and listen to what the employees, shareholders, customers and even competitors are saying. He says CEOs must integrate their words with a company’s mission, vision and values. Lastly, he cautions against jumping on activism bandwagon for the sake of it.

What I’m reading around the web

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity (ADHD) is a neurological disorder marked by distraction, impulsiveness and hyperactivity. This story unravels the positive and creative aspects of ADHD such as creative cognition and overcoming knowledge constraints.
  • ByteDance, owner of video sharing app TikTok, has agreed to making changes to protect children, according to this article. The company said it will now allow users to report ads and offers that trick children into purchasing goods or services. Plus, there’s a policy that will ban the promotion of inappropriate products such as alcohol and cigarettes and some get-rich-quick schemes.
  • Can you make money by just surfing the Internet? Canadian tech company Surf thinks so, in this story. The idea here is to bypass Google and other data-guzzlers and sell data (yours) directly to retail brands. When you do so, Surf will give you points that can be redeemed for gift cards and discounts. Surf is still in its beta or limited release stage in the U.S. and Canada.

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