C.E.O. Activism Has Become the New Normal

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Starbucks conducted racial bias training. Dick’s is no longer selling assault weapons. Patagonia is suing the president. In each case, a chief executive took a stand — a growing trend in corporate America.

This kind of “C.E.O. activism,” which thrusts companies into politics, has been on the rise for a few years now. But recently it seems that hardly a week goes by without a senior executive inserting themselves into a contentious debate over social issues.

Many Americans have noticed the trend. The public relations firm Weber Shandwick has released its third annual report on the trend, and DealBook got an early look at the study. The results underline the degree to which — whether companies like it or not — this appears to be the new normal.

Here are some of the takeaways from the survey of more than 1,000 Americans:

■ People are increasingly aware of C.E.O. activism. More than a third view it favorably.

■ Nearly half of respondents believe C.E.O. activism can influence government policy. Democrats and Republicans agree that it can make an impact.

■ Less than 40 percent of respondents believe C.E.O.s “have a responsibility” to speak out. About two-thirds of Republicans said C.E.O.s should “stick to business.”

■ The top issues people want C.E.O.s to address? Training, equal pay and sexual harassment. Bottom of the list: gun control, nationalism, marijuana legalization and abortion.

In a predictable effort to avoid ruffling feathers, the Weber study doesn’t call out many specific examples of activism. It doesn’t touch on Delta’s tussle with the National Rifle Association after the Parkland, Fla., shooting. There is no mention of the unraveling of the presidential advisory councils last year, when dozens of top C.E.O.s turned their backs on President Trump over his response to the Charlottesville, Va. white nationalist rally. Actually, the word “Trump” is conspicuously absent from the report.

Nonetheless, the study serves as a reminder that business and politics are more entangled than ever before. “While most C.E.O.s are not accustomed to participating in the political arena,” writes Andy Polansky, the C.E.O. of Weber, “they and their companies need to be prepared to navigate these uncharted waters, whether they remain silent or not.”

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