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  • Writer's pictureKahmile Reid

CEO Activism: To do or not to do…?

The idea of CEO activism turns on the philosophy that companies should have a higher purpose. In this school of thought, maximizing shareholder value is a part of that purpose rather than the only purpose.

If you have read my article entitled Brand-standing: A risk Strategy, you would know I’m all for brands taking a stand on social issues, within reason. Businesses operate to make a profit and should (and often do) stay away from decisions that can significantly affect their bottom line. Not only that, one of the hardest things to rebuild after damage of any kind, is a reputation. Hence, this kind of activism must be managed with great care.

The best approach for a brand with a desire to engage in activism of any kind is to sit with their communication team, do the requisite research, test the message and map the best way to start a constructive dialogue about it.

Now that I have declared my hand, let me go a little further. It follows that if I believe that companies should take a stand on issues of import to their customers, or to brandstand, then their CEOs would naturally be expected to do the same. After all, brands don’t exist in isolation from their chief.

Being inspired by the CEO of a company is easier when such a person is already likable and highly respected to begin with. So the messenger also matters. Additionally, the issue of choice has to be one he or she deeply understands and has the ability to communicate key points with authenticity, using active language in a way that personalizes whatever message is being conveyed. For anyone to inspire those around them, especially CEOs, they have to demonstrate that they have their audiences’ interests in mind.

One example that stands out in my mind is Disney’s chief executive officer Bob Iger telling Reuters that he would find it “very difficult” to continue filming in Georgia if a new abortion law takes effect. You may recall that recently Georgia’s Republican governor signed into law (May 7, 2019), a ban on abortion after doctors can detect a heartbeat - which is typically six weeks into a pregnancy.

The law, if passed, will take effect January 1, 2020. What is interesting is that he didn’t say this for the obvious reason. He said it because of his concern for Disney’s staff members who may not want to work in this State. This goes back to the point about demonstrating they have their audience’s interest at heart.

The trustworthiness of a communication is measured on factors like the speaker’s ability to provide the audience with a comprehensive understanding of key points, and to take ownership of the message through personalized, active language. To do this, personal pronouns (eg: we, me, us) are useful; these have the ability to connect audience with the CEO as well as his team.

Keep in mind, this has to be a dance that is done like no one is watching, meaning, the language used must be what one would expect in a one-on-one conversation, one without an audience. That is authenticity and it is the key ingredient when trying to connect with an audience in CEO activism.



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