- By Roger Bolton and Steve Cody

In the past, when CEOs spoke out on policy issues, it tended to be on those that affected their business – tax and trade policy, for example. They rarely took a stand on social issues, which were deemed to be out of their range of authority and interest. Those issues also can be quite polarizing and most companies preferred not to risk alienating some portion of their stakeholders.

Today, however, companies increasingly are expected to speak out on social issues. A recent Harris survey of employed adults in the U.S. shows that an overwhelming number of people from all age groups want companies to stand up on issues, not sit on the sidelines. Here are some highlights:

  • More than 80% of people believe U.S. companies have an important voice in proposed legislation, regulation and executive orders that could affect their business or the lives of their employees.
  • Nearly two-thirds of employees expect their employer to take a stand on important issues affecting our country and constitutional rights, such as immigration, equal rights, climate change, etc.
  • More than half of employees expect their employer to allow employees to use work time and resources to advocate for positive social change, regardless of political affiliation.

It is clear that employees and other stakeholders want CEOs to take a stand on social issues. But when and how should they do it? It all comes down to corporate character. When companies have done their homework on purpose, culture and values, the choices about whether, how and which issues to take a stand on will be best filtered through those lenses. CEOs are more empowered to take a stand when it’s evident that their company’s purpose and values align with it, or perhaps even demand it. By doing so, they reinforce those values to their stakeholders and demonstrate that the company genuinely and authentically is committed to them. By the way, here is a recent Page Turner post by Steve showing how a leading company is building corporate purpose.

There is still a risk of offending some part of the populace when a company takes a public stand, so it’s important to make sure that there is alignment with the company’s corporate character before speaking out. But there can be quite a few benefits, too. In fact, Roger previously has commented in this space on a credible study that whose results "suggest that CEO activism can sway public opinion – and also increase interest in buying the company's products." This means that taking a public stance brings an opportunity to make the world better while also strengthening the brand.

recent study undertaken by Steve’s firm, Peppercomm, and the Institute for Public Relations provides a roadmap for chief communication officers (CCOs) to use when advising their companies on such matters:

  • Move quickly
  • Stay true to your core values
  • Seek broad buy-in
  • Be laser focused
  • Think outside your walls
  • Even when you plan, expect the unexpected

The study notes that CCOs are in a uniquely positioned to facilitate cross-functional collaboration to ensure that all teams are acting in an aligned and strategic way.