Last reviewed 12 February 2019

Corporate activism has many facets. From the activist CEO to the shop-floor employee, activism in organisations around the world is growing. Laura King explores what corporate activism is and how it can be fostered.

Over and above making a profit, there is an increasing assumption that companies have environmental, cultural and social responsibilities towards the communities and wider society they exist in. This concept of corporate citizenship has not only fuelled Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, it has also led to a change in how businesses publically shape, support and make a stand for issues in our world today.

Although broadly aligned towards doing social good, activism can be quite different from CSR. Whereas CSR initiatives are generally aligned to the business objectives, activism does not have to be. It is this distinction that can make it quite difficult to manage.

However, when approached thoughtfully, corporate activism can be a catalyst for change. Research conducted by brand consultant Wolff Olins found that people believed businesses had more potential to bring about positive change in the world than individuals, governments and even individual activists; a sentiment that has been replicated in a number of surveys.

So, how can activism foster change for the better?

Activism at the top

There is a new kind of chief in town, especially in America where CEO activism is on the rise. Examples include Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who regularly takes a public stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights; and Kenneth Frazier, CEO of pharmaceuticals company Merck, who resigned from Donald Trump’s business advisory council after the President failed to condemn the 2017 neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville.

On Twitter, Kenneth Frazier explained his decision: “As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance.”

Although some CEOs seem to speak out of conviction, there is a growing sense that those at the top are now expected to take a stance.

According to a survey by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research in 2017, 47% of millennials in the USA believe that CEOs have a moral responsibility to speak up on issues that are important to society. Furthermore, over half of the same age group would be more likely to buy from a company whose CEO spoke out on an issue they agreed with.

This latter finding is key: In America, where CEO activism is thought to be driven by divisive values and politics across the nation, stances are made on both sides of the political spectrum. As such, it is a risky strategy that can both alienate, as well as build, long-term customer loyalty. Knowing what to say, and when, is critical to business success — so much so that in a recent article by the Harvard Business Review, it published a CEO Activist’s Playbook offering advice on how to speak out.

Although divisive politics appears to be a key driver for CEO activism, for the moment, this trend appears to be staying across the pond. If there ever was a divide in British politics, Brexit is certainly it. However, although politicians have tended to fall one side of the debate or the other, it is telling that over and above warnings about the implications of Brexit, there has been very little noise from individual executives.

The power of a brand

Brand activism is when companies launch a social good campaign that is intended to raise awareness of an issue in society, while at the same time promotes a positive image of the company.

The best cases of brand activism are where campaigning is already at the heart of the company’s strategy. In the UK, Lush and The Body Shop are two well-trodden examples; in the USA, examples include Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia.

However, this deep-rooted brand activism is no longer the only kind seen. In efforts to differentiate themselves, companies not traditionally identified as activists are also starting to use value-based advertising to stand out from the competition.

As you might expect, for every good campaign, such as the award-winning Lloyds Bank’s #GetTheInsideOut advert on mental health, there are also many that miss the mark.

In 2017, for example, Pepsi pulled an advertisement which featured Kendall Jenner, a model and supporting star of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, diffusing a stand-off between protesters and police with a can of cola. The advertisement was not only widely ridiculed, but the premise that human rights could be won so glibly was considered by many to be highly offensive.

It is questionable how genuine many of these sorts of campaigns are, and the public are rarely tolerant of shallow, insincere or meaningless statements. Even companies well accustomed to activism, such as Lush, can come under fire. Despite its experience, the company was forced to pulled its 2018 “spy cops” campaign “for the safety of staff”.

From the ground up

A third angle to corporate activism is the activism taking place day-in and day-out by employees. The drivers for this are numerous, although long working hours, an always “on” culture, and the attachment of work to identity are some of the oft-cited reasons.

Like the traditional activities of the unions, for some employees, activism remains a group activity. Perhaps the most well-known example was when 20,000 Google employees worldwide walked out of their offices last year in response to reports that the company gave a $90 million exit package to a senior vice president after he was accused of sexual harassment. Although the payoff was seen as unacceptable in itself, the protest had a wider agenda including concern over forced arbitration for victims of sexual assault.

However, as well as these very public displays, many believe that a new, quieter, breed of activist employee is also growing.

Described as “tempered radicals” by Stanford University Professor Debra Meyerson, these employees want to succeed within their organisations yet still abide by their own codes and values. Expressing their values under the radar, they are leaders and workers that push for change from within an organisation, often through small actions. A tempered radical might be someone who stretches the rules, or subtly challenges the status quo — their actions might not immediately switch opinions, but over time can have profound results.

Being active with activism

Activism in all its forms is a powerful way for a company to demonstrate its commitment to corporate citizenship. There are no clear pathways to navigate activism, but businesses should consider the following.

  1. Sincerity: Companies can no longer make shallow platitudes about their values. Any statement needs to be backed up with action and aligned with how the company operates.

  2. Chose an initiative wisely: It may seem obvious, but it should be clear as to the “why” of any campaign. This helps align action with the company’s objectives and helps ensure that there is accountability.

  3. Be amenable to employee-led movements: Employees need to be heard and their concerns need to be carefully considered — it is quite likely that they are more in tune with changing social attitudes that the company’s managing directors.

  4. Facilitating employees: From providing adequate training so that employees can understand the reasons for a campaign, to fostering positive activist actions, helping employees to join the debate and voice their opinions can build an environment where employees and their organisations have a better chance of making a difference.