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Bold Or Backseat? CMOs, Here's How To Guide How Your CEO Speaks Out On Charged Issues

In this Forbes article, Joel Benenson presents BSG's research on the subject and provides his four guideposts for decision making.

Less than two weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, CEOs across industries were openly critical of his executive order restricting immigration. In the months since, the number of CEOs publicly taking on Trump grew and their tone toughened as he withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords, failed to condemn white supremacists marching in Charlottesville and moved to end DACA.

Historians have said that CEOs’ outspoken reactions to Trump are unprecedented. But this shift can’t be wholly attributed to the provocative actions of a controversial president. Speaking out is the new norm for corporations that feel compelled to take a public stand on social issues to voice their values in a public realm.

CEOs, and the CMOs who guide their public actions and statements, will never be able to put the “no comment” genie back in the bottle. The pressure for corporations to stand up and communicate their values will only grow, no matter who is President.

Social media has created a virtual public square of commentary with no geographic boundaries or curfews. Millennials and Gen Z comprise half the U.S. population, and the internet has been in their bloodstream since childhood. These diverse generations are also more concerned than their parents about the values of companies they buy from or want to work for.

Like it or not, CMOs are finding themselves in significant roles mapping the strategy when their CEOs want to engage on controversial issues. In this new era of corporate activism, CMOs must learn how to gauge the potential backlash of taking a stand, as well as the best ways to respond.

In June, with nearly two decades of providing strategic and communications roadmaps to our political and corporate clients, our firm conducted a survey to gauge how Americans react to CEOs speaking out in this new environment.

The data show consumers want and expect CEOs to address public issues, especially in areas where they have expertise. Over 90% believe that, given the challenges facing America, it’s important for business leaders to speak out.

We also tested CEOs speaking out on issues where they disagreed with their customers, and we saw no significant “backlash effect” from their most loyal customers, and a negligible effect among softer customers. This tells us CMOs should not fear widespread business repercussions to their CEOs taking a strong public stance.

While our research points to benefits of business leaders getting on their soapbox, there are things to consider before CMOs let their CEOs step to the microphone or Twitter. Being agile is critical, but the risks and rewards should still quickly be assessed in each case to avoid stepping on landmines. The CMO should take the lead and have methods in place to obtain a 360-degree perspective within 24 hours.

To that end, here are four essential guideposts to inform a strategy for taking a stand:

  • Why are you speaking out? You need to have a reason and it needs to be authentic. Every company and CEO is different, with his or her own interests, pressures, customers and audiences. Ask yourself, is it intrinsically important to your business, your employees, your customers and your community? If the answer is yes, then you know why you’re speaking out.

  • What is the impact? Don’t act on instinct alone, even if it’s a strongly held belief and core to your company’s values. That’s not to say you shouldn’t speak out in these circumstances, but first you should do research so you understand the impact, and anticipate consumers’ response. You don’t want to get caught dealing with fallout in real time.

  • Who is your audience? Most companies know their audience, but only as consumers. In this context, it’s essential to also know them as political beings, in terms of their social values. Understand how strongly your loyal consumers feel about the issue you want to speak out on, and assess the potential backlash.

  • When is the right time to strike? Set the agenda, don’t follow it. Speak out when you’re ready and don’t rush it just to be among the first. You need to contain uncertainty and avoid unexpected consequences. Speak out when it’s relevant to you and to your customers’ values—not necessarily just because the topic is front and center.

In today’s landscape, it’s the CMO’s job to know how, why and when to get their CEO into the debate. As core values are threatened and social and moral issues are put under a public spotlight, there will be more pressure, not less, on CEOs to speak out. CMOs must lead the way in generating the processes and data needed to make the right decisions, so that their CEOs aren’t on the sidelines when they should be in the game.


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