Advocate or Agnostic: Should your CEO speak up on social issues

September 7, 2018

brand purpose and social issues

Last week, Nike released an ad titled, Dream Crazy, which has sparked new debates around business and social issues. I’ve often found that when a brand makes national news like this, it usually sparks discussions internally among executives and communications leaders – or at least it should. Hopefully this post provides some interesting questions to incorporate into your conversation.

Working in public relations, I used to get asked a lot whether an organization’s CEO should be on social media. My response started the same way, “Does your CEO want to be on social media?” and if so, “why?” 

The conversation often went something like this: 

Me: Do you want to be on social media? 

Executive: No, not really.

Generally, I found the CEO didn’t possess a strong desire to join a particular social media channel but rather were interested in whether they were missing an opportunity.

Occasionally, the conversation would go a little differently…

Me: Do you want to be on social media? 

Executive: Yes. 

Me: Great, why?

Executive: I think there’s opportunity there. We should be using social media to build leads or tell people about our product/service.

Now don’t get me wrong, social media is powerful. There are astoundingly successful executives, who are either personally or with help, engaging on social media. However, in many of the situations I encountered, the CEO or exec member didn’t appear to have a genuine desire for engagement on social media. 

Today, I find this question comes up less often and has been replaced with: should our CEO/brand speak up on a social issue? For good reason: 80 percent of business professionals believe businesses have a responsibility to look beyond profit and make a positive impact on society (Salesforce), and 87 percent of people will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about (Cone Communications).

It’s clear that the demands on businesses to embrace social purpose are steadily growing. However, it’s not always clear how to do this. Having followed companies, like Patagonia, thredup and now Nike, who have spoken out on social issues, I believe these same questions may offer some insight:

Does your CEO want to join the discussion? 

Based on their answer, you can begin to understand their perspective and intentions. Dig a little deeper: Is he or she willing to not only talk about the topic, but put the conversation into action? This may be financially, operationally or with their time. Have they considered the outcome? Do they understand that their views may align with some employees/customers and not others? Brands must do more than speak up, they must demonstrate actual change.

Second, why? 

Why are they interested in this social issue? Do they have a personal connection to it? Does it impact your primary customer? There needs to be a genuine interest, understanding or passion to move forward. Anytime the reason is financially motivated, it’s not the right decision. Engaging on social issues with the sole motive to sell more will never work out well. 

The key to engagement is authenticity. If you’re going to join the conversation on a social issue, it must come from a place of meaning and value. This is why I am so passionate about brand purpose. Without a clear understanding of the meaning and motivation of your business, making important decisions can become murky.





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Karen Bailey is a brand purpose consultant and specializes in helping companies define their purpose and align their business around it. In 2017, she launched the blog, Purpose Greater Than Profit, to start a meaningful conversation about the increasingly important role of brand purpose, purposeful leadership and a better way of doing business.


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