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What millennials want from their CEOs: Activism

Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, says his company is “all about empowering people through our products.” (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Americans, on the whole, aren’t so sure how they feel about chief executives speaking up about social issues such as climate change or President Trump’s travel ban. Some like the idea, especially if they agree with the CEO, making them more likely to buy products from a company with which they agree. Others wish CEOs would just be quiet, believing they should stick to running their businesses rather than wading into political chatter.

But there’s one group of consumers that is far more likely than others to believe corporate leaders have a responsibility to speak up on societal matters — and it will come as little surprise. It’s millennials.

A new report from the global public relations firm Weber Shandwick and KRC Research surveyed Americans on how they feel about “CEO activism” — when corporate officials make public statements on social issues. In recent years, more and more chief executives have been speaking up, urging the White House to remain in the Paris climate accord, criticizing regulations that limit gay rights, defending journalism amid accusations of “fake news” or criticizing dysfunction in Washington.

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As Apple CEO Tim Cook said last year: “For a company that’s all about empowering people through our products, and being a collection of people whose goal in life is to change the world for the better — it doesn’t sit right with me that you have that kind of focus, but you’re not making sure your carbon footprint isn’t poisoning the place. Or that you’re not evangelizing moving human rights forward."

Millennials are the one group that sees this trend in a significantly positive way. In the survey, 56 percent of millennials said CEOs and other business leaders need to engage on hotly debated current issues more today than in the past, compared with just 36 percent of Gen Xers and 35 percent of baby boomers.

Forty-seven percent of millennials said CEOs have a responsibility to speak up on social issues that are important to society, compared with just 28 percent of Americans in older generations. And millennials were the only generation in the survey in which the percentage of those who said they view CEOs more favorably for taking public positions actually expanded since last year, rather than declined.

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Combine those numbers with the neutral responses — young survey takers who said they weren’t sure, don’t know or that it doesn’t make a difference to them whether the CEO takes an activist stance — and the edge clearly seems to be with taking the bet and wading in. Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for Weber Shandwick, said that “if you’re really looking to recruit the next generation, you need to know they’re expecting you to speak up on some of these issues.”

The survey showed that millennial consumers aren’t just opining about how they feel about CEO activists. It’s likely to drive their behavior. According to the survey, more millennials this year said the public views of CEOs were more likely to drive them to make purchases, an answer that declined among older generations this year.

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Similarly, the percentage of millennials who said they would increase their loyalty to their employer if they knew their CEOs’ views far outstripped that of other generations: 44 percent of millennials said it would, compared with just 16 percent of Gen Xers and 18 percent of baby boomers. “To me, that is an incredible finding,” Gaines-Ross said. “There’s a perception that millennials are eager to move from job to job, and if there is some sort of ‘stickiness’ that [CEOs] can create, that’s another factor to consider.”

Aaron Chatterji, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, said one reason for millennials’ positive response to CEO activism is that it’s well established that they, in particular, value authenticity as consumers. CEOs have been so vocal on state bills that limit gay rights, he said, in part because after expanding benefits for LGBT employees for years now, they realize consumers will ask, “How can you say we’re a great place to work, but not speak up for those issues outside your walls?”

Social media is another reason. For companies, Chatterji said, social media is like “this microphone that’s always on. If you’re not speaking about the issue of the day and other businesses, it’s conspicuous.”

While it’s not really surprising that younger consumers are more interested in social issues, and make purchases in accordance with their beliefs, Gaines-Ross said the outsized millennial consumer demographic and the general uptick in activism in a polarized society mean it’s something corporate leaders will need to consider in their public communications. “This whole activism shift is real,” she said. “We’re seeing it from everywhere, and we’re just going to continue to see it. It’s part of the great divide.”

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