Should our CEOs, the C-suite or members of the Board speak out or act on key social and political issues?

This is the vexed question facing many of our captains of industry and one that was brought into sharp focus this past week with the Morrison Government advising corporations to steer clear of environmental and social issues and focus instead on core business concerns.

This rebuke saw the Government taking on some of the ‘goliaths’ of business including BHP’s Andrew Mackenzie; Atlassian’s Mike Canon-Brookes; Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce and Virgin boss, Paul Scurrah.

Mr Mackenzie has become something of an international environmental warrior in his attempts to reduce his own company’s global emissions and work towards cutting the carbon footprint of his customers.

Software billionaire and climate evangelist, Mike Canon-Brookes, is known not to pull any punches when it comes to speaking out on climate. In fact in the lead up to the Climate Strike last week he not only encouraged his staff to attend the event but did so himself, joining the thousands attending rallies across Australia.

In 2017 we saw Alan Joyce lead the business community’s support for same-sex marriage, pouring $1 million of his own money into the campaign and in the process mobilising corporate Australia to get involved. More recently he told us via his LinkedIn page what action Qantas will be taking on climate change.

So not surprisingly the Government’s reprimand last week resulted in a slew of response and a big push-back from these corporate leaders.

Speaking at the National Press Club last Wednesday Mr Joyce maintained that by publicly supporting marriage equality was not just “morally right” but also in Qantas’ business interests.

“We know our employees want companies to stand up for these big issues. Generation Y and Z are saying … they want to work for a company that has a social conscience, so to get talent you need to be out there on social issues,” he said.

It is not just employees who want their leaders to speak out but clearly so does the community at large.

According to the findings of CEDA’s inaugural Company Pulse, (released last week) more than 75 percent of the general public and senior business leaders support business leaders speaking out on social and environmental issues.

The first of its kind nationwide poll of 3,000 people, the survey is designed to better understand community expectations of business and how these expectations compare with the priorities of business leaders.

Further evidence of this changing tide of public sentiment was on display last year when research by well-respected global public relations firm, Edelman, revealed that 56% of consumers have no respect for CEOs who remain silent on social issues while another study by BrandFog found that 64% of consumers say it is “extremely important” for CEOs to take positions on social issues, especially companies they buy from.

To do or not to do

I’ve been in public relations for almost 25 years and clearly remember the days when we strongly advised our clients against commenting on political and social issues.

Instead we counselled them to stick to business issues when it came to media commentary. Any curly questions about politics or the environment should be neatly deflected off to the experts. After all, it wasn’t their place to comment on these issues.

Well the days of politely handballing that commentary to those who were supposedly better placed to comment on them, is well and truly over.

The world has moved on.

Not only does the workforce, expect its leaders to step and speak out but so do their stakeholders – investors, customers and the community at large.

So coming back to that original question: should business leaders be activists?

Absolutely.

However, this comes with some very strong caveats … and I mean STRONG caveats!

  • Do ensure that what you’re acting on or speaking out on, is genuinely in the public interest. Don’t do it simply because it is “fashionable”. Do it for the right reasons.
  • If you are speaking out, explain your reasons for speaking out and demonstrate the link to the wider national interest if you want the broader community to support your advocacy.
  • Be authentic. Make sure your activism resonates with your business objective/s, your personal story, or some change you are committed to making within your company.

So if you are looking to be an activist, do so for the right reasons!

Parker Public Relations specialises in public relations and thought leadership advocacy for businesses, not-for-profits and peak bodies. It also provides thought leadership and personal branding for CEOs, leaders, academics, innovators and subject experts.

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