The Risk of Wrath: CEOs, Companies & Communicators Need to Take a Stand


Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatch

Whether CEOs and communicators like it or not, companies are increasingly expected to stand up for their values.

They are no longer neutral islands, far from the madding currents of society.

They are expected to articulate what their company believes in and what it does not.  Companies are increasingly judged on their response to the issues of the day.

Blame or thank social media, this reality is here to stay.  The immediacy and speed of Twitter means there is simply no excuse in the public’s mind for not saying something and saying it quickly.

Taking a stand on social issues is new.  Responding to social activists is not.

For decades companies have had to, albeit grudgingly, respond to activists’ questions about issues including diversity, the environment or their past role in wars.  Only recently have they become activists themselves.

The Milton Friedman economic philosophy—that a company’s responsibility is to make money for shareholders—provided an ideological framework that separated companies from society.  If the business of a company is solely profit, then as long as company operates within the law, how they operate is nobody’s business.

In Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s seminal 2011 Harvard Business Review paper “Creating Shared Value,” the importance of the company’s role in creating economic and value in society was clearly and effectively articulated.

Corporations’ support for the LGBTQ community’s right to marry marked a tipping point in corporate social activism.  As firms one by one came out to support the community, social activism went mainstream.  And with it, the expectation that businesses have a role to play in the social issues of the day.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back.

Whether they like it or not, America’s leading companies are expected by their audiences to be on the “right” side of social issues.

We also need to recognize that we are at a generational inflection point.  CEOs and communicators brought up in the era of companies living an island life are giving way to a newer generation actively shaping the currents of social change.

In this context, the fear of the wrath of Donald Trump, recently articulated in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s, August 14th New York Times article, is driving some CEOs to cower in the shadow of the idea that they can be neutral and have influence with a seat at the government table.

In a polarized world, businesses have a legitimate fear of boycotts and being shamed by the President.  But, the greater risk may well be silence.   This is not the first time that CEOs, companies and communicators have had to make hard choices.  And, when the decision to be silent is heard around the world.

Even if the President were given the benefit of the doubt about his remarks on Charlottesville, the attacks on a peer Kenneth Frazier, who stood up for his and Merck’s principles, and others, should serve to remind leaders that their views and perspective seem to matter little.

Companies can play a role for good in society, but in order to do so, their leaders need to stand together.  Many have expressed their abhorrence of hate groups, white supremacists and violence over the weekend, and others have joined Kenneth Frazier by resigning from advisory roles.  History is likely to judge those who do not speak out and act harshly. 

The short-term risk of wrath must be weighed against the risk that clients may take their business to companies with social values aligned with their beliefs.

This is a time to stand up and be counted.


About the Author: Simon Erskine Locke is the Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatch. He previously founded agencies and held senior communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank.

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