A recent survey suggests that Millennials want corporate executives to speak up on political issues, with almost half of Americans between 18 and 36 years old saying they believe CEOs have a responsibility to publicly express their opinion about social issues such as equal pay and health care.
"Millennials have been brought up with social media," Weber Shandwick Chief Reputation Strategist Leslie Gaines-Ross said. "Word of mouth is paramount, and they understand the power of connectedness."
It has been a banner year for public position-taking among big U.S. firms, with President Donald Trump's immigration ban sparking an uproar that led dozens of CEOs such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon (AMZN) , Tim Cook of Apple (AAPL) , James Gorman of Morgan Stanley (MS) , and outsted chief Mark Fields of Ford (F) to issue public statements. Starbucks (SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz announced a plan to hire 10,000 refugees in its stores as a result. That incident was shortly followed by the brouhaha over the president's decision to exit the Paris climate agreement, in which hundreds of companies publicly retaliated.
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More than half of millennials surveyed said they would be more likely to buy products from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on issues where they agree. For the most part, millennials agree with boomers and gen x-ers on the topics that CEOs should take positions on, with jobs and skills training, equal pay, and health care coverage topping the list for all the generations.
There are two issues that millennials think need to be more discussed than other generations. Millennials are significantly more likely to say that CEOs should take positions on LGBT rights and gun control, according to the survey.
Weber Shandwick conducted the online survey alongside KRC Research, and both companies are subsidiaries of umbrella organization Interpublic Group of Companies Inc. (IPG) .
TheStreet spoke to several public relations experts who are Millennials themselves to get their feedback on the survey results.
Emily Austen, who is the CEO of the public relations firm EMERGE, said millennials should be skeptical of CEOs who take public positons.
"The transactional nature of 'having a cause' and the transparency of jumping on the bandwagon merely just to have a viewpoint, for the sake of having a view point, can blur the line between a CEO aiming to lead, and a CEO wanting to influence," Austen said in an email.
Austen noted that the survey showed that millennials believed the top reason a CEO would have for taking a political position would be to attract media attention - a motivation that could be intertwined with possible financial gain.
CEOs may not always express views that are in line with their actual business practices, either, which can be a public relations nightmare. Gaines-Ross said she tells clients that if they plan to speak out, they should make sure they do not have any skeletons in their closet.
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Jamie Mancini, creative associate at the public relations firm John Doe Communications, said the survey results indicate that millennials are expecting the same initiative from CEOs that they are expecting from everybody else.
"I think it's a matter of everyone needing to speak up about social issues not necessarily CEOs," he said in an email. "Though the reason the emphasis upon [CEOs] is stronger is that they actually have the ability to change things sooner than the masses and they should use that position to amplify social injustices."
Mancini said that millennials like him want to use their skills for the public good and that they expect CEOs to do the same.
Vicki Dacker, an account director at the public relations firm Ketchum, said CEOs need to consider the impact of sharing their views on their potential talent pool.
"If a CEO takes a stance politically, socially or ethically, many in that organization or who were attracted to joining that organization may think twice about their position there if the attitude differs from their own," Dacker said in an email. "On the flip side, a CEO or organization with a similar point of view could help attract business and talent from like-minded millennials and increase engagement and advocacy - as long as their point of view is authentic and believable!"
Ketchum's CEO and Chairman Rob Flaherty noted that executives can avoid trouble if they ask themselves certain questions before speaking out, including whether they have spoken out on political issues before, and if it would be consistent with the brand to take a bold position.
"What scenarios can you envision resulting from a decision to take a position," Flaherty said in an email, "and are you ready to dedicate the time and resources to defend yourself if you become the target of backlash?"
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