Commentary

Are CEOs The Next Public Servants?

The bell has rung on year one of Donald Trump’s exhausting and culturally tempestuous presidency. His provocative executive orders and tweets have spawned immense activism by students, women, athletes, scientists, and actors — railing against Trump’s bigotry and Gilded Age policies. And for the first time in recent history, corporations and their CEOs have actively entered the political fray.

Until recently, companies have signaled their socially conscious and political leanings more subtly, through corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs dictating business practices and cause marketing campaigns aligning their brands with social causes. Most companies have avoided weighing in on politically divisive issues for fear of alienating consumers and shareholders or thwarting lobbying efforts on the Hill.  

Trump has turned that tide. CEOs are speaking out fervently on polarizing social and political issues, compelled by moral outrage at the president’s actions and  the recognition that party politics have trumped principled leadership in Washington. If the past year is any measure, many CEOs are feeling a call to public service or a sense of responsibility to fill the growing void in moral leadership in this country, publicly entering the POTUS-induced melee on some significant issues.

Social Injustice

From the get-go, corporations stood against Trump’s ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Hundreds of top leaders includingGoogle, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Netflixpublicly opposed the banas discriminatory, and donated to civil liberties organizations. When Trump vowed to rescind DACA  — which allows the undocumented children of immigrants to stay in the U.S. — Facebook, Salesforce, and IBM spoke out for the Dreamers’s continued protection. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently donated $33 million to a Dreamers’ scholarship fund. 

Then Trump trained his chaos inward, stoking deep-seated racial discord within the United States. Instead of denouncing the racism and violence of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left three people dead, Trump placed blame for the conflict on "both sides." This unleashed a tsunami of CEO rebukes — from Merck and GE to Under Armour and Walmart — and wholesale resignations from Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum. 

The Environment

It’s no secret Trump considers climate change a “Chinese hoax,” despite a 97% scientific consensus. While advancing coal and oil exploration interests, he’s yanked climate change research and references from .gov websites. When Trump pulled the U.S. out of the global Paris Agreement on Climate Change, CEOs from Tesla, Disney, Goldman Sachs and most tech companies denounced the move as an abrogation of the U.S.’s global moral responsibility. GE’s, Jeff Immelt laid down the gauntlet: “…Climate change is real. Industry must now lead and not depend on government.”

In response to the administration’s chipping away at protections to our public lands, Patagonia sued Donald Trump and ran a TV ad to fire up people to save the National Monuments. The government responded:


As risky as corporate resistance may be, consumers want it.In a new Social Sprout study, 66% of consumers say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues. 

So CEOs and their companies will continue to exercise their moral authority. When CEOs give voice publicly, they won’t be one-offs, but rather holistic embodiments of their corporate core principles and brand DNA. As a result, CEOs will be more involved in positioning, and companies’s public affairs, messaging, and brand management functions will be vital.  

Corporate America will have plenty of opportunities to engage because net neutrality, race relations, fossil fuel exploration, and entitlements promise to rage on in Trump’s year two. The big question: will CEOs and companies limit their participation to reacting to Trump’s missteps or will they go the way of Ben & Jerry’s and proactively lead the charge on critical issues?

7 comments about "Are CEOs The Next Public Servants?".
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  1. Steve Schiedermayer from Schiedermayer & Associates, Inc., January 22, 2018 at 2:22 p.m.

    I agree with your comment on "risky". If you're a CEO and going down this road, be prepared to tick off half of the country and have it impact your earnings negatively. If you have a "coastal" brand, no big deal then, but half of the country likely disagrees with your opinion of the state of the country. Particularly from a business climate standpoint.

  2. Anne Zeiser from Azure Media replied, January 22, 2018 at 3:19 p.m.

    Steve, you’re right in underscoring how risky it is for companies to engage in politics. A cautionary tale from last fall: Keurig's pulling advertising from Fox's Hannity because of its interview with Roy Moore, the GOP US Senate candidate from Alabama accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with minors. Angry Fox supporters began posting videos online of Keurig coffee makers being smashed or otherwise destroyed. Keurig's CEO Bob Gamgort had to walk back his company’s position to quiet the social media fervor.

  3. Paul Petralia from Paul Petralia, Esq., January 22, 2018 at 3:56 p.m.

    It's apt that you mentioned Trump's penchant for the Guilded Age because from that era of great wealth and abject poverty came the great philanthropists Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J.P. Morgan. They all felt that with their success came the public responsibility to help the most #vulnerable (Trump admin banned word) and created a legacy of giving back. Seems like some of today's CEOs are recognizing the same responsibility to the greater good, but not just in creating foundations and donating money, but also in participating directly in democracy.

  4. Anne Zeiser from Azure Media, January 22, 2018 at 5:10 p.m.

    Paul, yes! Everything is cyclical and perhaps history is destined to repeat itself (more or less). What a terrific unintended byproduct of these contentious and selfish times -- a new spate of philanthropy and leadership. 

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, January 22, 2018 at 7:04 p.m.

    You forget the shiny dime theory and actions of Rockerfeller, et al. There "generosity" was a tax write off and PR targeting the wealthy. He flung shiny dimes at the peons to go and grab and pick up like a king for them to bow down to him. Through the years, some of that generosity has shifted down the pike, but you will see it still favors the wealthy. 

  6. Martie Cook from Emerson College, January 23, 2018 at 8:35 a.m.

    Through the din of reaction to Trump, I hadn't thought about this trend of CEOs and companies speaking out. I wonder whether the recent tax bill, which clearly favors corporations in their pocketbooks, will make corporate America clam up- not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them!

  7. Anne Zeiser from Azure Media, January 23, 2018 at 10:58 a.m.

    Great point Martie! Plus, the ascendance of the stock market is making shareholders and the 1% very happy. We'll just have to wait until the next White House-generated afront to morality to see how CEOs and corporations react. 

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