I am a faithful reader of Axios AM, the daily update from Mike Allen. Yesterday’s lead news item from reporter Eleanor Hawkins focused on a shift occurring within corporate America: companies and brands that were taking a stand and speaking out on human rights and societal issues have started to go quiet. Hawkins writes, “Companies that were once very vocal on human rights and societal issues have held statements close to the vest or stayed completely silent after the recent streak of tragedies in America. There is a major shift in the way leaders communicate during heightened moments of tragedy and crisis.”
This is not the time for CEOs and the companies they lead to remain silent or stand down. Business leaders must not only speak out on incidents of injustice and the pressing issues of the day, but they must take action. There is data from the Edelman Trust Barometer that provides evidence for chief executives to continue to weigh in and lead on societal issues.
- Business is the most trusted institution, by double digit margins over government, in 15 of the 28 countries surveyed.
- Business ranks 53 points higher than government on competence, 30 points ahead on ethical behavior. Business has risen 20 points on ethics in the past three years likely because it kept society functioning during the pandemic (including delivery of life-saving vaccines), acted decisively in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, then over 1,000 companies left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.
- On average, 80 percent of respondents want CEOs to speak up and lead on societal action.
- By an average 6 to 1 margin, respondents want more business involvement on societal issues such as climate change, economic inequality, healthcare access, and reskilling.
- Nearly two thirds of employees will only work at a company if they share the same values. Sixty three percent of consumers are now belief-driven buyers weighing corporate behavior in purchase.
- Employees consider their workplace the safest place to discuss societal issues, well ahead of their neighbors.
The corporate playbook in this time of heightened anxiety must prioritize employees. We need to offer safe spaces for employees to speak, as we did this week for the 400 Edelman team members who joined me and U.S. CEO Lisa Osborne Ross to discuss the Nichols case, the Uvalde shooting, the Half Moon Bay shooting, and Colorado Springs shooting. Every part of Edelman, from African Americans to Asian Americans to Latinos to LGBTQ+, spoke about confusion, anger, fear, and the need to stand together. We committed to speaking to mainstream media about the repeated use of the horrific Nichols video, which one of our team members told us was playing on every one of five stations at her health club as she was trying to seek solace from tragedy.
We should inspire our clients to act, to invest in their communities so that the underlying issues are resolved. As an example, I am serving on a special group of the Civic Committee in Chicago which is offering private sector solutions to gun violence. Companies need to be part of the solution to education (Chicago companies have adopted community colleges and AON is offering apprenticeships to students), to poverty (Wells Fargo is donating to local NGOs serving challenged communities), and to upskilling (IBM Skills Build Blockchain Curriculum and P-Tech). Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld from the Yale School of Management said: “Today we know where people shop, where people invest, and where people chose to work is strongly guided by [a company’s] public image.”
The role of the CEO filling the void left by paralyzed and politicized government has never been more important. Trust is local, in My Employer (77 percent, which is 15 points higher than business in general and 26 points above government). My CEO is trusted sixteen points more than CEOs in general. The CEO is entrusted with the mandate of action by all stakeholders; to speak up on their behalf because of the power of the position and the impact of the voice. We cannot allow ourselves to become fatigued by the constant barrage of violence, deluding ourselves that people are accustomed and accepting of the new situation. My friend Bret Stephens wrote recently in Sapir, “Americans have grown sadly used to a world where people who know nothing can say anything,” He goes on to quote Dostoyevsky, “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel.” Then he concludes by saying that the work of saving culture does not happen by itself. Corporate citizenship doesn't have to come at the expense of growth. Companies can do both; make money while positively impacting society. Business, it is time to stand up, be counted and make a difference.
Richard Edelman is CEO.