More than half of millennials look for social activism in a CEO

CEO activism is increasingly expected among millennials

There is a surge in expectations, particularly among millennials, that a CEO should speak up about social issues.

And, millennials will “vote by wallet” for those companies that do have conscientious leadership.

A recent study by Weber Shandwick and KRC research found that nearly one-half of millennials (47%) believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak upabout issues that are important to society, and 51% said they are more likely to buy from companies led by CEO activists. The numbers are increasingly higher than those same sentiments of GenXers and Baby Boomers (28%) with six out of ten millennials (56%) saying that business leaders have a greater responsibility to speak out now than in years past.

In the spring of 2017, Weber Shandwick partnered with KRC Research in an online survey of 1,021 U.S. adults 18 years of age and older, representing the general population of America.

“Over the past 12 months, the climate in the United States has changed dramatically as business and policy have intersected more deeply than ever before,” said Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick. “When dozens of CEOs spoke up about the new administration’s decisions regarding issues like climate change and travel to the U.S. from select countries, for example, social media ignited, protests erupted and media attention exploded. Navigating how to communicate a company’s point of view in this environment is becoming increasingly complex and important."

"Future generations will only pay closer attention to how companies communicate around their values when it comes to deciding where to work or who to purchase from.”

With half of millennials agreeing they would likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue, this rate has increased from 41% to 51% in the past year, according to the report.

When it comes to recruiting talent, more than four in ten millennials (44%) say they would be more loyal to their organization if their own CEO took a public position on a hotly debated current issue. While 19% said they would be less loyal if their CEO spoke out – loyalty outweighs disloyalty by more than twice as much.

“Millennials, more than other generations, expect CEOs to champion their values,” said Micho Spring, global corporate practice chair of Weber Shandwick. “Their early schooling in social media has extended beyond their ability to influence social movements to impacting their workplace and its leadership.”

The study notes that among Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, only 16% of Gen Xers and 18% of Boomers would be more loyal if their own CEO spoke out, while two in ten of each generation (18% and 20%, respectively) would be less loyal. Before taking a stand on an issue, it is important to address the perspectives and concerns of this older segment of the workforce to better understand what would or would not shift them toward more positive perceptions of their companies.

The survey also asked consumers what they think the risks are of not speaking out. Half of Americans (47%) believe the biggest risk of a CEO not speaking out on a hotly debated issue is some form of criticism, whether it comes from the media (30%), customers (26%), employees (21%) or the government (9%). Top perceived risks do not differ by generation.

Interestingly, the study found that the older generations are less likely to have heard of CEO activisim, with millennials more favorable in general of CEO activism (42%) than Gen Xers (25%) and Boomers (24%). They also exhibit favorability even when an issue is unrelated to the company’s direct business (37% millennials, 19% Gen Xers, 17% Boomers).

Half of Millennials (50%) think CEO activism has an influence on the government compared to 31% of both Gen Xers and Boomers. Perhaps that is a strong reason for why they favor CEOs taking a stand. Millennials perceive the primary reason CEOs take a public position on an issue is to get attention in the media (36%). This is followed by selling more products or services (22%), showing how the issue aligns with their corporate values (21%), and building their company’s reputation (21%).

Millennials are most likely to have taken an action because of a CEO’s stance on an issue (74%) followed by Gen Xers (63%) and Boomers (55%). The top action taken by millennials is talking about the CEO’s stance with people they know. Given Gen Xers’ and Boomers’ general displeasure with CEO activism, it is not surprising that they register their displeasure by boycotting a CEO activist’s company.

“Our research on CEO activism continues to show strong enthusiasm among the Millennial generation for CEOs speaking out,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist of Weber Shandwick. “For companies looking to increase sales, recruitment, innovation and word of mouth, millennials’ bias toward CEO activism should not be overlooked. This generation is heavily purpose-driven and is already changing the game when it comes to how we work and where people want to work.”

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