Taking a stance on social issues: Is the risk worth the reward for CEOs? 

Written by

Matt George

Partner, Head of Research

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Written by

Annie Phifer

Research Manager

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Written by

Jessa Scott-Johnson

Senior Director - Research

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Written by

Eunice Yau

Director – Research

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05.20.24

A majority of respondents (59%) from a February 2023 Stagwell Weekly Consumer Sentiment survey of 1,996 U.S. adults say there’s more risk than reward (41%) when CEOs speak out on social issues — but when they do take a stance, people are listening. An analysis of 9,200 articles written by CEOs between December 1, 2022 and November 20, 2023 revealed that CEOs talking about social issues attracted nearly double the readership (14.3m) compared to articles about policy and politics (8.2m readership). Articles dealing with return-to-office policy drew the most readership (22.2m), with thought leadership bringing up the rear (3.9m, the lowest readership). People tend to read what relates most to them, so articles about social issues and workplace policy likely will continue to draw eyeballs. 

Speaking of issues that are close to home, when their employer does take a public stance on an issue they care about, majorities of employees feel supported by their company. In a survey from the Harris Poll of 1,055 U.S. adults in October 2023, 78% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans agreed that they felt supported when their employer took a stand on a social issue, as did Gen Z (71%), Millennials (70%), Gen X (59%), and Baby Boomers (51%). Hispanic and Black respondents tied at 69% agreement, followed by white respondents (60%). 

A bit of a double standard emerges, though, when respondents were asked whether businesses should take public stances on current events in a Bentley-Gallup Business in Society poll of 5,757 U.S. adults in June 2022 and 5,458 U.S. adults in May 2023. Even though majorities felt supported when their company took public positions on social issues, between 2022 and 2023 the percentage of respondents who believed businesses should take a stance on current events decreased across all groups. This decrease heightens the risk of potential negative fallout from a company’s comments on an issue. 

Though respondents agree there’s more risk than reward, businesses wanting to take a public stance on a current event or issue can take some steps to make sure their risk is a calculated one. Business leaders should consider: 

  • Will we be supported by our target audiences when we take a public stance? In the Bentley-Gallup poll, different audiences report varied intensity of support for business’ public stances on issues. Among parties, the biggest decrease was among Democrats, 75% of whom thought businesses should take public stances in 2022 — but only 62% said they should in 2023. The group that most opposed businesses taking public stances was Republicans — just 17% said they should in 2023. And when it comes to age, the older the respondents were, the less likely they were to support businesses taking positions on current events. In 2023, the only age group where a majority still believed businesses should take a public stance were those ages 18-29 (53%); less than a majority of those ages 30-44 (47%), ages 45-64 (35%), and ages 65+ (35%) thought so.  
  • Is the issue somewhat related to our workplace or business? Respondents are clear: only very few topics are okay for businesses to talk about — and only those that relate more to the workplace or directly to that company’s product or service. The Bentley-Gallup Business in Society poll of 5,458 U.S. adults in May 2023 found that the only topics where a majority of respondents thought businesses should comment on were climate change (55%) and mental health (52%). The more divisive the subject — and the less related to the workplace — the less likely respondents were to think businesses should take a public stance on them. For example, international conflicts (27%), abortion (26%), political candidates (19%), and religion (15%) drew the least support.  
  • Does the stance align with our company’s history on social issues? Before rushing to make a public statement on current events, businesses should check their track record. In the Stagwell Weekly Consumer Sentiment survey of 1,996 U.S. adults in February 2023, respondents made it clear that to appear authentic, companies must have a history of commenting on similar issues. 68% said they worried that companies speaking out is a marketing ploy, and 71% agreed that a company’s history on social issues is important to take into account when speaking out. A company’s message on social issues must align with the values and background of the business, or else risk sounding opportunistic.  
  • Is it likely to impact consumer behavior? A Morning Consult Research Intelligence report polled roughly 20,000 U.S. adults and nearly 8,000 U.S. voters from August 2019 and September 2023 on corporate activism. What they found: consumers are generally more likely to boycott than “buycott” (spent money to support a company) based on a company’s politics — though the overall percentages of consumers who have taken deliberate action for or against a company based on their public stances are relatively low. Only 22% reported boycotting a company in the past year for political reasons, compared to 20% who had “buycotted.” Predictably, those with more disposable income (over $100K household income) are more likely to report boycotting (32%) or buycotting (30%) a company for political reasons, compared to those in the $50K-99K HHI bracket (25% boycotted, 25% buycotted) and those making under $50k in household income (17% boycotted, 15% buycotted).  

With all these considerations in mind, business leaders must stop and think before taking smart, researched risks by weighing in on social issues.  Companies that do their due diligence can benefit – while those that shoot from the hip usually wind up taking a reputational hit.   

You can read more on navigating social responsibility here: https://sevenletter.com/corporate-social-responsibility-communication/