Warning to woke CEOs: Public doesn’t want companies speaking out on social issues, study finds

Management firm surveys CEOs and voters and finds major disconnect when it comes to political activism of corporate America.
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Most voters say companies should not speak out on social issues, while most corporate executives think they should, a new opinion survey has found. 

While 63% of corporate executives "agree unequivocally that companies should speak out on social issues," only 36% of voters feel the same, according to a poll conducted by the Brunswick Group.

"As the data show, the organizational impulse to weigh in on any and every social issue is disregarded by audiences, disconnected from what people want, and even diminishing to corporate reputation," the advisory firm explains.

Corporate executives "vastly overestimate" the importance of speaking on social issues, according to the firm, even when compared to Biden voters — 63% of executives versus 51% of Biden voters.

Corporate executives also "have a highly inflated sense of how effective corporate communication has been on social issues compared to voters," according to the study. Most executives (74%) think corporate social justice communications have been effective, compared to a minority of voters (39%) who agree.

More than 60% of voters think "companies only speak out on social issues to look better to consumers and are not being sincere," whereas a solid majority of executives think their actions are more virtuous, with 57% saying, "Companies speak out on social issues because they want to achieve real change."

The groups are divided on the prioritization of issues as well. For example, while both groups rank health care as their top problem, executives rank climate change, data privacy, racism and gun violence as their second to fifth most important issues, in order. Voters rank homeless as their second issue, followed by mental health, unemployment and crime prevention. 

Brunswick blames this disconnect on "The Talking Trap" — where increased engagement from corporations causes the public to think the efforts are inauthentic. 

To avoid this trap, Brunswick recommends companies make their communications thoughtful and tangible. "Statements and symbols — however sincerely delivered — may be necessary but they are not sufficient," the firm advises. "Organizations need to be ready to back it up with an investment that is as tangible as it is earnest — donations of cash, donations of product, donations of your employees' paid time, and with your daily business practices."

For this poll, Brunswick Group surveyed 301 corporate executives and 800 people who voted in the 2020 presidential election from Sept. 29 to Oct. 7, 2021.