Should CEOs Stop Speaking Out?
Feb 21, 2023 Beth Monaghan
Is the age of the outspoken CEO over? Both Axios and Bloomberg have recently run pieces about the decline of CEOs taking public stances on social injustice, violence, natural disasters and political issues. Why? The tech industry, which previously spoke very loudly, has hit tough economic times, as we see public comments affecting stock prices. Bloomberg’s piece also noted that politicians are targeting CEOs.
I’m among the outspoken CEOs. I’ve had my share of worry over my public comments, including the time I expected anti-abortion protestors at our offices after a conservative media outlet ran a story on our pregnancy loss benefit. But our societal problems remain. Racism is more overt, healthcare inequities abound, privilege often beats qualifications, agency over our bodies is under threat, the wealth gap is only increasing, and our planet is screaming at us. I’m only scratching the surface.
CEOs who want to make a difference should keep taking stances. Speaking out isn’t a new phenomenon. After World War II there was a refusal to buy German cars. Nestle has gotten in trouble for promoting baby formula to populations that didn’t have access to clean water to mix with it. Whether we like it or not, cultural forces affect our busineses, and businesses are still the new battleground states.
And as a storyteller, I also know that people root for a hero who stands by his/her/their values, especially when it’s hard. Consistency and authenticity breed trust. The question to consider during this particular cultural moment is when to speak up and where (publicly or internally, or some hybrid option).
Here are 12 questions we use to help our clients find clarity:
- What are your organization’s values and is this situation aligned with them?
- What do you want to be known for? (Do you want to build a category, be a great place to work, be a socially-conscious organization, help stop climate change, etc.?)
- Who does this subject affect? (e.g. women, parents, BIPOC/under-represented groups, LGBTQ+, etc.)
- Who needs to hear your message and why? (Who are your top stakeholders/audiences?)
- As an employer, how will this subject impact your people?
- Will taking a public position/speaking feel authentic or performative?
- Have you spoken out on this topic in the past? (And if so, what did you say? Would this be flipflopping, fairweather social consciousness, or consistent with your actions, which are louder than any words?)
- Will silence lead to an influx of inquiries? (And know that silence is often the same as taking a position.)
- If you decide to take a stance, should it be publicly or shared internally? (Look back at who this affects and who are your core audiences. What serves them?)
- Is now the right time? If not, what does the right time look like?
- What kind of impact do you want to make? And is that impact possible in this venue?
- Will speaking out do harm — to yourself, your organization, the cause at hand, and even the opposition? (As Mahatma Gandhi wrote about civil disobeidence, “violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence.”)
CEOs help create real change when we use discernment to know when, where and how to help.
Here are a few examples of public statements from my own experience:
- Shorter workweek. When Inkhouse implemented a shorter workweek, we announced it publicly and other agencies joined in. We shared the system we created, and then got to learn from others who were trying other ways. The same thing happened with our pregnancy loss benefit.
- The gender wage gap. In 2015, when I spoke publicly about the wage gap in PR, word came back to me that larger agencies had decided to increase their pay bands because of public pressure.
- Paid leave. When we increased our parental leave to 20 weeks, many clients inquired about how we made that work with disability leave and coverage. I’ve testified in favor of paid leave laws in Massachusetts and in Washington, D.C. And of course, our employees feel supported.
- Speaking Panel Diversity. In 2018 we adopted a panel diversity policy. We don’t speak on or host panels that are all white or all male. I’ve declined numerous invitations because of this, and every time, the organizer thanks me for pointing this out and talks about wanting to do better.
- Abortion. Last year when Roe vs. Wade was overturned, I was on a call with a group of CEOs explaining how our pregnancy loss benefit works, which includes abortion. I made a snarky joke about how I could probably get arrested in Texas now. Then one of the other CEOs said he lives in Texas and was tired of being called sexist because he’s pro-life. A beat later, he told us that he’d pay for his employees to get abortions because he deeply cares about them. He was living in the gray area where values and the messiness of humanity find grace for one another. And I felt like together, he and I could probably figure out how to help a lot of people even though our political views are vastly different. This conversation could not have happened through a public venue.
- Violence and social injustice. I’ve chosen to speak about it more internally because the audience that matters are the people who work for me are just trying to make it through the day. They need to feel seen, like they matter, and to be given permission to care for their hearts during difficult times. The sad truth is that I feel like I write a message of support to people in our Inkhouse community who feel vulnerable and traumatized at least once every other week. But I’m going to keep doing it, because it keeps us connected as humans not just co-workers. We also exercise our voice through donations to charitable and social justice organizations. Because money speaks loudly and helps tremendously.
The bottom line: Harm and hatred aren’t catalysts for change. They’re fuel for polarization. When leaders choose to speak out to support issued affecting their communities — and resist the pull of criticism and blame — we build bridges to change.