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The Double-Edged Sword of CEO Activism

by David F. Larcker, Stephen A. Miles, Brian Tayan, and Kim Wright-Violich

CEO activism—the practice of CEOs taking public positions on environmental, social, and political issues not directly related to their business—has become a hotly debated topic in corporate governance. According to the New York Times, “Chief executives across the business world are increasingly wading into political issues that were once considered off limit.” The article cites gun control and climate change as examples of advocacy positions taken by CEOs in recent years, and references a study by Edelman as evidence that this trend is viewed positively by the public. According to that study, 64 percent of global consumers believe that CEOs “should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it,” and 56 percent say they have “no respect for CEOs that remain silent on important issues.”   A separate survey by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research arrives at a similar conclusion, finding that “more Americans are aware of CEO activism, view it favorably, and see its potential to influence public policy.”

This viewpoint, however, is far from universal. Others believe that CEOs should not use their position as leaders of public companies to promote personal beliefs, and that the CEO’s obligation is to advance the performance of the corporation without offending customers, employees, or constituents who hold opposing views or do not wish to hear advocacy views from companies. A Wall Street Journal article with the provocative title, “You’re a CEO. Stop Talking Like a Political Activist,” laments:

Business leaders who feel reluctant to join the fray, or worry that discussing divisive issues will only alienate customers, find themselves in a perilous spot. The endless, real-time conversation taking place on social media, combined with the rising  tide of advocacy bubbling up from their own employees, customers and investors, make their silence increasingly conspicuous.

The impact of CEO activism on corporate performance is essentially unknown. Chatterji and Toffel (2018) find that CEO activism can “increase consumers’ intentions to purchase the company’s products” but only to the degree that there is “alignment between the CEO’s message and individuals’ policy preferences.” Korschun, Aggarwal, Rafieian, and Swain (2016) find that CEO activism is viewed positively by consumers if the company is considered “values-oriented” but negatively otherwise. The authors argue that the impact of CEO activism on purchase behavior is driven by the degree of “perceived corporate hypocrisy.”

The bifurcated impact of CEO activism is exemplified by a recent Nike advertising campaign that includes former NFL quarterback and national-anthem protest leader Colin Kaepernick with the statement: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”   The weekend following the campaign, the company reportedly experienced a temporary spike in online sales.  At the same time, market-research firm Morning Consult found that Nike brand’s favorability and purchase-consideration ratings fell sharply across all demographic groups, even when segmented by age, race, and political affiliation. Underscoring the market’s uncertain view of CEO activism, Nike stock price fell 3 percent on the news of the ad campaign and subsequently recovered.

To better understand the implications of CEO activism, we examine its prevalence, the range of advocacy positions taken by CEOs, and the public’s reaction to activism.

CEO Activism in the Media

We started our analysis by examining all public statements in national media and corporate transcripts made by the current CEOs of all companies listed in the S&P 1500 Index. From these, we removed advocacy statements related to corporate matters, including statements about corporate tax rates,  federal and state regulations, and political issues with widespread economic implications, such as the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, budget sequestration, NAFTA, and tariffs. These statements are common across a large number of CEOs in response to questions about policy impacts on their business. Next, we categorized remaining statements into five subject groups: the environment, diversity and inclusion, immigration and human rights, other social issues, and politics (see Exhibit 1). We included both statements that are a clear expression of the CEO’s personal beliefs and statements that are ambiguous as to whether they are a personal belief or corporate position.

The most immediate observation is that significant discretion exists about whether a statement qualifies as activism. Some statements on social or environmental matters are phrased as personal preferences or expressions of opinion without advocating that corporations or society take action. Many align with the company’s core line of business and appear potentially beneficial in terms of customer or employee retention, or addressing external critics. The motivations behind these statements can be ambiguous. 

Examples of commercially beneficial CEO statements are plentiful:

• In 2018, The Coca-Cola Company announced a global recycling initiative,  pledging to collect  and recycle an equivalent volume of the packaging it sells each year, by 2030. CEO James Quincey made the statement: “If left unchecked, plastic waste will slowly choke our oceans and waterways. We’re using up our earth as if there’s another one on the shelf just waiting to be opened…. Companies have to do their part by making sure packaging is actually recyclable.”

•   Gerry Anderson, the CEO of Michigan-based utility DTE

Energy, called climate change “the defining policy issue of our era,” and said that his company has “a responsibility to address it…. There is no sucker’s choice between a healthy environment and a healthy economy…. We can have both so long as we do it in a smart way.”

•   Darren Wood, the CEO of ExxonMobil, advocated that the United States remain in the international Paris Agreement to reduce climate change: “I believe, and my company believes, that climate risks warrant action and it’s going to take all of us—business, government, and consumers—to make meaningful progress.”

•   In 2014, CVS announced that the company would no longer sell tobacco products in its 7,600 U.S. pharmacies. According to CEO Larry Merlo, “Cigarettes have no place in an environment where healthcare is being delivered. This is the right decision at the right time as we evolve from a drugstore into a healthcare company.” The company had recently purchased Caremark, a pharmacy benefits manager that administers prescriptions for insurers and large employers.

Similarly, Newmont Mining maintains “sustainability  targets to uphold human rights and lower water use and greenhouse gas emissions” in the developing nations where it operates; Philip Morris International touts its ongoing effort “to continuously improve working and living conditions” for the 450,000 tobacco farmers that supply its product; and the CEO of Wynn Resorts expressed his commitment “to lead our company and this industry in diversity and gender equality” in statements made following the termination of his predecessor for alleged sexual harassment.

Our approach was to retain statements such as these, taking the standpoint that outside observers are not in a position to reliably assess the motivation behind personal statements. Similarly, we retained statements made by CEOs touting awards their company has received for meeting environmental, social, or diversity- related goals, or their score on indices that measure companies along these dimensions.

Even with this wide criteria, we found that very few CEOs take activist positions in the national media.  Among  S&P 500 companies, we observed 138 (28 percent)   making public statements about social, environmental, or political issues either personally or on behalf of the company; only 48 (10 percent) clearly made these statements on a personal basis. Among S&P 1500 companies, the incident rate of CEO activism falls more precipitously. Only 175 (12 percent)  made statements personally or on behalf of the company; and only 63 (4 percent) clearly made these statements on a personal basis.

Of these, diversity is the most frequently advocated issue, with 50 percent of activist CEOs promoting an increase in gender, racial, or sexual-orientation diversity or equality. Environmental issues are advocated by 41 percent of activist CEOs, immigration and human rights 23 percent, other social issues 19 percent, and political issues 17 percent (see Exhibit 2).

Examples include the following:

• American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, regarding a proposed Arizona religious freedom law: “There is genuine concern throughout the business community that this bill, if signed into law, would jeopardize all that has been accomplished so far. Wholly apart from the stated intent of this legislation, the reality is that it has the very real potential of slowing down the momentum we have achieved by reducing the desire of businesses to locate in Arizona and depressing the travel and tourism component of the economy if both convention traffic and individual tourists decide to go elsewhere.”

•   Apple CEO Tim Cook, regarding violence in Charlottesville,

Virginia: “I disagree with the president and others who believe that there is a moral equivalence between white supremacists and Nazis, and those who oppose them by standing up for human rights. Equating the two runs counter to our ideals as Americans.”

• Chubb CEO Evan Greenberg, regarding the 2017 travel ban from select countries: “We are a country of immigrants. Our country’s openness to immigration is fundamental to our identity and history as a nation, and vital to our future prosperity. I am 100 percent for the security of our citizens. But at the same time, America is the land of the free, and we are a beacon and place of refuge for those seeking a better and safer life for themselves and their families. Shutting our doors to immigration is a mistake.”

•   Mylan CEO Heather Bresch, regarding diversity in the workplace: “My experiences with gender bias are probably the norm. What I found was that expectations of women were simply lower, and this resulted in being overlooked for certain opportunities. Now as a leader, I strive to create an environment different than the one I faced, an environment where good ideas can come from anyone—young, old, men, women, assistant, executive—and opportunities are open to everyone.”

•   Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff,  regarding social equality: “Equality’s really important to Salesforce, to me and to Salesforce, in that equality is about gay rights. Equality’s also about women’s rights. As the CEO of Salesforce, I’m going to fight for that, as it relates to my company.”

•   CMS Energy CEO Patricia Kessler Poppe, regarding environmental sustainability: “When we talk about our commitment to the planet, we’re talking about reducing our environmental impact, including reductions in water,  land use, emissions and carbon. We’ve self-imposed improvement targets that go beyond environmental compliance, and we’re ahead of our plan in all of these areas. There was a time when this would have implied higher costs for customers but not at CMS. We find a way to deliver it clean and lean.”

Any perception of widespread CEO activism might be driven by a few vocal outliers. Most CEOs who take positions do so narrowly regarding one or two issues. Only a few are repeat activists, expressing their opinions on multiple issues. Examples of repeat CEO activists include Mark Benioff (Salesforce),  Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman  Sachs), Tim Cook (Apple), Michael Corbat (Citigroup),   Robert Iger (Disney), Howard Schultz  (Starbucks), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook). These tend to be the CEOs of large, prominent corporations whose statements attract media attention.

In a recent article, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon conveys an ambivalent view of CEO activism:

Society expects things of leading companies and sometimes we should take a stance on something.” Some public statements are “easier for us,” … such as supporting environmental sustainability and military veterans, but “on social issues it gets tougher. Ideally we wouldn’t lead on very many things. 

CEO Activism on Twitter

We then examined CEO activism on Twitter. Because Twitter is a visible forum for companies and individuals to interact with the public, we would expect CEO activism to be higher on Twitter than in national publications and corporate transcripts. We found this modestly to be the case. Although CEOs comment on public issues more frequently on Twitter than in the national media, the incident rate is still fairly low.

Among the S&P 1500, only 166 CEOs (11 percent) have active personal Twitter feeds. Of these, 53 (23 percent)  do not tweet at all on social, environmental, or political issues. The remaining 113 (68 percent)  tweet at least once advocating an issue; 22 (13 percent)  dedicate 10 percent or more of their Twitter activity to advocacy. In aggregate, 4.6 percent of CEO tweets can be considered activist. Considering that the number of CEOs who maintain personal Twitter feeds is only 11 percent of the CEO population, CEO activism through Twitter is very small (656 tweets over the course of 1 to 3 years across 1500 total CEOs).

The distribution of tweets across subject categories is broad:

60 percent are related to diversity, 42 percent to the environment, 20 percent immigration and human rights, 56 percent other social issues, and 16 percent political (see Exhibit 3). Other social issues include increasing investment in education, combatting poverty and homelessness, support for the military and veterans, combatting diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and prison reform, among others. Among the most controversial issues is gun control, advocated by 11 executives.

The tone of CEO tweets varies broadly. While many take a benign approach—promoting participation in a conference or event, championing the work of company employees, or retweeting others’ comments—some are strongly worded and sharp in tone. Examples include the following:

• #BloombergEquality focusing on Closing the Gender Pay Gap with transparent discussion! Companies need to address structural gaps and dig in to know their numbers.

– Susan Salka, CEO AMN Healthcare

• Retweet of: Proud to be part of a company that supports the LGBTQIA+ community and proud of our employees who are sharing their experiences!#UnumCares  @unumnews #Pride2018

– Rick McKenney, CEO Unum Group

• Today  @AdvanceBizWomen shared our recommendation: “Increasing the Number of Women in STEM.”   Improving access to #STEM education is crucial to innovation and it helps communities attract and keep good jobs that will drive the future. #IWD2018 advancingwomeninbusiness.com/ pillar-two/

– Mary Barra, CEO General Motors

•   The women standing up to say #MeToo are brave and inspiring. We must strive to ensure all women are safe at work.

– Indra Nooyi, CEO Pepsico

• I stand with @AMarch4OurLives & the students leading the way to gun reform! Join the march! Our schools and our children must be safe! #MarchForOurLives @Emma4Change @davidhogg111 @cameron_kasky @al3xw1nd @JaclynCorin #EnoughIsEnough #NeverAgain #Vote2018

– Joe Kiani, CEO Masimo

• The stories and images of families being separated at the border are gut-wrenching. Urging our government to work together to find a better, more humane way that is reflective of our value as a nation. #keepfamilestogether

– Sundar Pinchai, CEO Google

• Retweet on refugee policy: Another new low from the Trump administration. Unconscionable. Remember this cruelty when you vote. Not just in the next election but in every election. Not a single republican official has condemned this. The “moderates” and “centrists” are just as cruel

– Stephen Kaufer, CEO TripAdvisor.

In addition, we tested whether companies with activist CEOs are more likely to promote advocacy positions through their corporate twitter feeds than companies without activist CEOs. To do so, we identified 14 companies led by activist CEOs and compared their corporate twitter activity with a set of matched-pair companies who do not have an activist CEO. We found no difference in their frequency of tweets regarding social and environmental issues: both sets of companies dedicate approximately 8 percent of their tweets to these issues. The vast majority of these promote the work the company does in areas such as diversity, environmental sustainability,   workforce education, and local community investment and are not statements that some would strictly consider “activist” (see Exhibit 4).

Public View of CEO Activism

Finally, we study the public reaction to CEO activism. While survey data shows that a majority of the public supports CEO activism as a generalized concept, viewpoints vary considerably across issues: a positive reaction among some respondents is often counterbalanced by a negative reaction among others.

In a survey of 3,544 individuals, the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University found that two-thirds (65 percent)  of the public believe that the CEOs of large companies should use their position and potential influence to advocate on behalf of social, environmental, or political issues they care about personally, while one-third (35 percent) do not.

Members of the public are most in favor of CEO activism about environmental issues, such as clean air or water (78 percent), renewable energy (68 percent), sustainability (65 percent), and climate change (65 percent). They  are also generally  positive about widespread social issues, such as healthcare (69 percent), income inequality (66 percent), poverty (65 percent), and taxes (58 percent).

The public reaction is much more mixed about issues of diversity and equality. Fifty-four percent of Americans support CEO activism about racial issues, while 29 percent do not; 43 percent support activism about LGBTQ rights, while 32 percent do not; and only 40 percent support activism about gender issues, while 37 percent do not.

Contentious social issues—such as gun control and abortion— and politics and religion garner the least favorable reactions. Of these issues, CEOs speaking up about gun control is the only one with a net-favorable position (45 percent favorable versus 35 percent unfavorable). Abortion (37 percent versus 39 percent), politics (33 percent versus 43 percent), and religion (31 percent versus 45 percent) all elicit net-unfavorable reactions (see Exhibit 5). The most surprising result of the survey is that, while Americans claim to change their purchasing behavior depending on their agreement with an activist CEO’s position, respondents are significantly more likely to remember products they stopped using or use less because of the position the CEO took than products they started using or use more. Specifically, 35 percent of the public could think of a product or service they use less, while only 20 percent could think of a product they use more.

While self-reported purchase behavior is often an unreliable gauge, the high degree of public sensitivity to CEO activism suggests  that CEO activism is a double-edged sword: CEOs who take public positions might build loyalty with employees, customers, or constituents, but these same positions can inadvertently alienate important segments of those populations.

Why This Matters

1. Common perception is that CEO activism has increased in recent years, with executives more willing to take public positions on controversial issues. Empirical evidence, however, suggests that CEO activism is actually a fairly limited practice, often uncontroversial in topic and tone, and dominated by a few vocal outliers. Just how widespread is CEO activism? Are CEOs really taking risky positions to advance social, environmental, and political change?

2. Survey data shows that the cost of CEO activism might be higher than many CEOs, companies, or boards realize. How well do boards understand the advocacy positions of their CEO? How well do they understand the advocacy positions adopted by their company (such as through Twitter)? Are they involved in decisions to take public stances on controversial issues, or do they leave these decisions to the discretion of the CEO? Should boards be more engaged in these decisions, particularly when a public stance has the potential to impact positively or negatively the commercial performance of the organization?

3. How should boards measure the costs and benefits of CEO activism? How does the commercial impact (net change in customer purchase behavior) weigh against the impact on employee engagement and relations with external constituents, regulators, or shareholders? If the board determines the net impact of CEO activism to be negative, should it prevent the CEO from being an activist?

4. Not all activism is alike. Some activism is proactive, in that the CEO takes a stance that reflects a personally held belief, while other activism is defensive, in that the CEO’s position is made in response to external criticism or pressures. How accurately can employees, customers, and members of the public distinguish between these two types of activism? Do they react differently to them? Should this distinction matter from a board perspective?

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