Should CEOs get involved in hot social issues?

Whichever side of the fence they sit, there are risks involved for high profile CEOs when they take a stance on a big public issue, warns issues specialist Tony Jaques

Is it helpful for high profile CEOs to personally align themselves with controversial issues which have no direct link to their business?

It’s a question which has just been thrown back into the public arena by an Australian Federal Cabinet Minister launching a shock attack on business leaders who came out in support of same-sex marriage.
In a letter to the Prime Minister two weeks ago, 34 business and community leaders argued that marriage equality is good for busineds, employees, customers and the country.

They claimed to be writing in their personal capacity, but the likes of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce still copped a spray from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who said companies should “stick to their knitting.”

Joyce: Copped a spray from Dutton

Dutton said CEOs should not use an iconic brand and the might of a multi-billion dollar business “on issues best left to the judgments of individuals and elected decision makers.” (Though it has to be said some of his cabinet colleagues took a different view).

Just last month I questioned whether companies are becoming newly bold on public issues? But the change from big company support to individual CEO support raises the heat of the question, and may play right into the hands of critics.

As long ago as May 2015 a Who’s Who of Australian companies signed a newspaper advertisement in support of same-sex marriage and it went largely unremarked. Yet this latest letter, signed by top CEOs, seems to have touched a political nerve.

This was promptly followed by the case of Australian brewer Coopers, whose CEO was forced to apologise for a “light-hearted” YouTube video debate on same-sex marriage linking his beer to a religious group known for its opposition. Facing a threatened boycott, MD Tim Cooper asked for the video to be withdrawn and publicly stated his company’s support for marriage equality.

The issue here is not the merits of debate over same-sex marriage. The issue is whether high profile corporate intervention is helpful. Whether a personal agenda can potentially damage the organisation. And whether it’s strategically smart.

It’s certainly a question which has had repercussions at the highest levels of business. Take for example Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich who famously had to step down following an online protest for supporting a proposed ban on gay marriage in California. Or Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy who faced massive controversy over funding organisations regarded as hostile to LGBT rights. He later admitted it had been a mistake and said that, while he hadn’t changed his mind, in future he would stick to selling chicken.

Or consider the case of Telstra, one of the many Australian corporations which supported the 2015 newspaper advert. A year later the telco said it had abandoned its public campaign for marriage equality, but denied the decision came after pressure from the Catholic Church. Then, just days later, CEO Andrew Penn appeared to reverse direction and said the company would in fact step forward to support marriage equality. “By renewing our active position we acknowledge that we are at equal risk of inflaming a new debate, but it is the right thing to do.” Little wonder some stakeholders were confused.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Penn is one of the signatories to the new letter to the government, which emphasises that the CEOs were signing “in our personal capacity in support of marriage equality.” However that’s a naïve distinction. Big companies or their CEOs are free to intervene in high profile social issues, but they need to do it for the right reasons and understanding that a social issue at one level risks creating a business issue for the organisation as a whole.

Tony Jaques is the director at crisis communications company, Issues Outcomes



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