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The rise of CEO activism

By Emma Knott

Emma Knott

Thought leadership has long been a staple tactic within the public relations toolbox, shaping corporate reputation with a clear connection between the topic and the company’s business strategy. In recent years, the rise of ‘CEO activism’ has seen business leaders take a stand on political or social issues that are not necessarily related to their business. So, what are the underlying drivers of CEO activism? And what are the consequences of stepping beyond the confines of industry topics?

The trend is attributable, in part, to millennials (and subsequent generations) and their evolving expectations of business, brands and corporate leaders, as well as the shift in how they are choosing to engage. The rise of social media means that the microphone is always on. Platforms like LinkedIn have seen a massive spike in leaders from all industries taking to the channel to share their personal opinions – and healthcare is no exception.

However, there is a certain risk and reward associated with CEO activism; taking a stance on either side
of an issue can help bolster loyalty and trust in a company, or deepen a divide. In 2018, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier famously resigned from Donald Trump’s business advisory council after Trump failed to condemn neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville.

Frazier took to Twitter to make his stand and, within an hour, Trump responded by calling for Mr Frazier to spend his new-found free time “lowering rip-off drug prices”. Yet, despite the President’s displeasure, Merck’s stock price spiked following the incident.

In today’s society, customers expect leaders to take a stance but it is essential that they do so with careful consideration. We are working in an industry where a base level of mistrust continues to prevail. We have a responsibility to work closely with leaders to develop strategies that are right for them, and their business.

This includes developing a strong rationale for why they are engaging on a subject – it needs to be something that they can champion on an ongoing basis. The microphone is always on, and we need to make sure what is being said is relevant, responsible and real.

Emma Knott, Associate Director and Head of Social Media, Publicis Resolute

In association with

Publicis Resolute

3rd June 2019

From: PME

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