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Consumers Want Business to Push Social Change, But Not Politics

Wed, 08/08/2018

We expect business leaders to be agents of change on critical social issues, like civil rights and sexual harassment while preferring they not embroil themselves in partisan politics.

By Sheila McLean  and Joshua Gardner, MSL

According to a survey by Morning Consult, “Most people... prefer corporations stick to what they do best, and not get involved in politics... [and that] corporations already have more influence in politics and cultural conversations than they should.” Furthermore, companies who speak about President Trump – either positively or negatively – are far more likely to generate backlash than win favor.

The Morning Consult research is informative, but we believe the results do not tell the full story.

Ten years ago, the Great Recession created a crisis of confidence in traditional authority figures and institutions. Since then, the moorings of our institutions continue to fray and weaken:

  • People still fear job loss due to globalization and automation.
  • They worry about the health of the environment and the future it will offer to their children.
  • Massive global migration is challenging the ways some people have come to understand our national culture.
  • Common accepted facts and truth have become elusive, which weakens trust and makes it impossible to reach the consensus needed to solve problems.

But where apprehension and suspicion remain, there is a reason for optimism. Americans are looking for solutions; we’re looking for leadership, for partners that can make our lives a little better. Increasingly, we see the business community as a critical part of the solution, even while some distrust the profit motive and most hold corporate leaders to higher standards of behavior than ever before.

In fact, the employer may be the new safe house. According to Gallup, more people (68%) have confidence in big businesses than they did 10 years ago, and many people now believe a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.

In other words, we expect business leaders to be agents of change on critical social issues, like civil rights and sexual harassment while preferring they not embroil themselves in partisan politics.

This trend explains why the words and actions by CEOs are gaining traction, particularly as a number of high-profile business leaders have stepped up to address social issues that matter to us. Consider Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson’s “open letter” to President Trump following Mr. Trump’s election victory, or Walmart CEO Doug McMillon’s response to his employees following the events in Charlottesville, VA. There is a desperate search for the terra firma of stability and truth.  What’s more, silence now carries with it a danger that once did not exist.

That means every word a company says, every issue it tackles, and every group it engages has power and meaning. It is not enough to just be the company that does things the right way; people – employees, shareholders, even government regulators – expect businesses to communicate the how and why of their actions and sometimes, to advocate on their behalf.

While getting the words right is certainly important, understanding the mood of America is fundamental to connecting with Americans. In times of economic stress and strain, we look for leaders who are authentic and genuine. Just as products that are either organic or all-natural have seen an explosion in sales, authenticity has become an essential attribute in corporate communication because candor and truth that stands out in an era of mistrust.

To be fair, companies will always have their detractors and watchdogs – or as Morning Consult put it, “For every person you’re making happy, there are almost twice as many who are unhappy.” This is a given in today’s partisan environment, where people have retreated into self-curated information bubbles and silos to read only that with which they agree.

But a company that has established a record of honesty and decency – one that is truly authentic and genuine – and works to create a positive social and business impact can withstand such criticism.

Ten years after the Great Recession, our expectations of and priorities for the tools of capitalism have changed significantly. The Morning Consult survey results support that, as much as our own work does. While the Morning Consult research focused on how CEO statements may anger one side or another, our work reveals that the real focus should be on assuring that what you say aligns with who you are as a company. Or as James Murdoch, then-CEO of BSkyB, said of the company’s “Believe in Better” campaign

The Bigger Picture reflects [our] core values... and what we stand for. It is part of our strategy of championing issues that our customers care about – it is a commitment to our customers to try to do something about our shared interests and to do it together.

Sheila McLean

Sheila McLean has 20+ years of experience in CSR, sustainability, issues management, media, corporate reputation, advocacy and public affairs. She leads the agency’s award-winning CSR, Sustainability & Social Purpose practice in North America.





Josh Gardner


Joshua Gardner is North American Lead, Global Energy Sector & Vice President at MSL, focusing on CSR and corporate communications. Gardner joined MSL from Luntz Global Partners, where he managed all aspects of client engagement, including research, strategy, and message development. 

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