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Stakeholders’ changing expectations of corporations as well as new communication and PR channels have contributed to a novel face of corporate social responsibility: firms have started to engage in passionate political activist campaigns about controversial political issues.

In recent years, the world has heard Apple’s CEO Tim Cook speaking out in support of the LGBTQ+ community and has witnessed large corporations such as Black Rock Inc, Walmart or Dick’s sporting goods taking a stance against current gun regulations in the United States. In the same vein, a large number of small and medium-sized businesses have begun to make their political voices heard.

Given this recent transition from classical CSR topics to politicised and contentious corporate activities – what are we going to see more of in the future? Here are three corporate activist groups to look out for:

  1. CEO activists

The phenomenon of CEO activism – executives publicly stating their opinion on divisive political and social issues – is on the rise. In contrast to traditional corporate social responsibility topics, the issues discussed by CEO activists are not necessarily related to their companies’ bottom lines. When CEOs step into the political spotlight and speak out, they position their companies on the political spectrum and contribute to building a political brand.

Examples

Examples for CEO activists are Kenneth Frazier, Brian Krzanich and Kevin Plank, the CEOs of Merck & Co Inc, Intel Corp and Under Armour Inc, who resigned from U.S. President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council after his initial ambiguous response to the far-right Charlottesville rally in 2017. These moves were supported by several other business leaders.

Yet, while an opposition to extremist violence and racial inequality seems to be a safe bet, other CEOs have chosen more controversial topics. Marc Benioff from Salesforce, for instance, threatened to scale back his company’s investments in Indiana amid the signing of the Religious Freedom Restauration Act in 2015, which was criticised for discriminating the LGBTQ+ community. In the same vein, Dan Schulman from PayPal withdrew from its investment plans in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2016 after the state passed a law which was interpreted as an attack on LGBT rights.

  1. Employee activists

Another group of corporate activists likely to raise their political voices are employees. While the general public has started to pressure corporations on taking a public political stand, the same people are now carrying these expectations into their workplace. This creates an internal pressure for the corporate leadership.

Employee activism even has the power to induce corporate activism, for example, with the help of writing memos, public speaking, or resigning. Taking employees political demands seriously is especially crucial considering corporations’ ongoing competition for talent, as the Povaddo survey about employee engagement in Fortune 1000 companies demonstrates.

Examples

One example of how employees successfully achieved a change in direction is the exit of global consulting firm McKinsey & Company from its contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in 2018. Employees had strongly opposed this business relationship after it was brought to their attention by a New York Times article.

Another visible protest was carried out by employees at IBM, who raised their voices during a protest campaign and took their own consequences following CEO Ginni Rometty’s open letter to Donald Trump, in which she congratulated him for his election as U.S. President.

  1. Political brand activism

Brand activism is well known from traditional corporate social responsibility strategies. Companies seek to build up their brand by actively engaging in and campaigning in favour of widely-supported social and environmental causes, which are often directly related to businesses’ core values.

Political brand activism, however, purposefully picks thorny social and political issues amid a contentious political climate. Building campaigns on topics such as racism, gun regulations or same-sex marriage is becoming the new normal in the corporate world and we are likely to see even more of it in the future.

Examples

Taking up racism, Airbnb, for instance, launched a successful campaign to promote tolerance (#weaccept) in response to President Trump’s travel ban in 2017. The campaign was effectively staged as a Superbowl ad.

Equally, Starbucks can look back at several political activist campaigns – some of which were more successful than others. When the company launched an ill-conceived campaign about race (#racetogether) in 2015, which was supposed to engage its customers in genuine conversations, Starbucks faced a public backlash. Closing 8,000 stores for a racial-bias training of Starbucks’s employees and pledging to hire 10,000 refugees were perceived as better moves in the eyes of the public but nonetheless served as controversial topics of discussion.

Whether it’s a single chief executive, a team of employees or a brand campaign – we are going to see more of corporate activism in the future. If corporate activists will truly change the world for the better needs to be awaited, but their actions will surely spark political discussions and an intense exchange of views.

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