There was a time, not too long ago, when taking a strong political position could not only rock a CEO’s career, but also create significant problems for the company. That’s not the case anymore. Consider the actions of some executives after the Trump administration’s travel ban was announced in January. The CEOs of Ford, Starbucks, and Chobani declared quickly and firmly their opposition to the executive order. More recently, immediately following President Trump’s announcement that the United States would leave the Paris Climate Accord, Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, and Disney CEO, Bob Iger, declared opposition and resigned from the President’s Advisory Council—via Twitter.
Positions on political issues are just one area that’s now fair game for today’s executives. Many other topics, including travel, social issues, and opinions about other companies, are all on the table for the unfiltered CEO who’s more willing to share ideas and opinions, and engage with stakeholders in real time. These CEOs are more accessible than ever before, sharing details about what they’re thinking, what they’re doing, and what they care about. And the prevalence of social media gives them endless opportunities to engage directly with customers, employees, and all their different brand communities.
Transparency and accessibility—the new normal
Just a few years ago, a CEO unaccompanied by his protectorate of corporate communicators was a rare sighting. Messages were carefully crafted, filtered, and rigorously vetted, and only then were they systematically shared with the public. But now executives can simply tweet in real time and reach hundreds of thousands directly. President Trump epitomizes the unfiltered leader. As a CEO, he tweeted his thoughts to his millions of followers—and his behavior has not changed since he entered public office.
But is it good for a brand to have its leader involved in the conversation and directly engaged with stakeholders? The answer is usually yes.
Consumers value transparency and openness from the companies they patronize, and the unfiltered CEO can have a significant positive impact, further connecting them to the brand. Customers are not only looking for brands they can trust, but companies that listen and act on their feedback. They’re attracted to brands that share their values and allow them to define their experiences. They want to connect with organizations on an emotional level, engaging them in dialogue about what role the brand plays in their lives.
And when the CEO is engaged with the public directly—through social media and other channels— consumers feel like part of the brand. Elon Musk recently asked his Twitter followers to help him name his new tunneling machine, while Twitter’s own CEO, Jack Dorsey, asked his followers how the platform could improve. There are endless opportunities for CEOs to engage their customers. In fact, when Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky, asked users what improvements they would like the company to make in 2017, he responded to many of the tweets letting users know what was in the works.
Neutrality is out, strong POVs are in
Transparency and openness, combined with the current polarized political environment, has given rise to an even more interesting phenomenon. Customers expect brands to take positions and declare them publicly. Brands can no longer wait on the sidelines, taking a neutral position, especially as current events are taking place. This works, provided that the brand’s position is in line with its core values. Even if the CEO delivers an opinion that’s unpopular or alienates segments of the population, if the position aligns with the brand’s identity, consumers are more likely to forgive.
There was significant uproar when Chick-fil-A CEO, Dan Cathy, expressed his opposition to same sex marriage. Though his opinion received backlash, the company didn’t experience a decline in sales, possibly because the ultraconservative viewpoint was in sync with the company’s public Christian stance. Though many consumers didn’t agree, the fact that the fast-food restaurant stayed true to its beliefs may have engendered respect.
The risks of overexposure
In this always-on environment, the level of risk for both the CEO and the brand is higher. Under Armour’s CEO, Kevin Plank, faced criticism from customers as well as the company’s top three spokespeople, Steph Curry, Dwayne Johnson, and Misty Copeland, after he appeared on CNBC supporting President Trump and his pro-business agenda following the announcement of the travel ban. To help stem the backlash, Plank took out a full-page apology in the Baltimore Sun clarifying the company’s values. On a different scale, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, generated controversy when he spoke about women not needing to ask for pay raises at work. The issue played out on Twitter in real time, and he eventually tweeted his own apology.
It’s a new world for today’s CEOs, marked by greater public access, engagement, and transparency. Some may find it difficult to navigate. But those who master the challenges of this environment will realize new opportunities to strengthen and grow their brands. By not sitting on the sidelines and by engaging with the brand’s communities on the issues of the moment, the unfiltered CEO ensures the brand remains relevant and top of mind.
© Landor 2017. All rights reserved.