CEOs are speaking out about Charlottesville because we expect them to

The Chief Executive Officers of some of America’s biggest companies have openly challenged the President of the United States. They are making public statements using words like “right” and “wrong.” They are showing leadership and courage.
The avalanche started by Merck CEO Ken Frazier this week when he condemned President Trump’s failure to condemn the white supremacists and neo Nazis who incited the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va. Showed a new level of activism.

“America’s leaders must honour our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy,” he tweeted. Then he quit the President’s Manufacturing Council and Strategy & Policy Forum.

Several more executives then defected, and by Wednesday more than a dozen CEOs met by conference call and decided not to serve the President any longer on any of his councils.

Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon criticised the President for “missing an opportunity” to bring the country together.

Last year witnessed PayPal’s Dan Schulman leading the fight for transgender bathrooms. Elon Musk of Tesla and Robert Iger of Disney walked away from President Trump to protest the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. Uber employees pressured former CEO and founder Travis Kalanick to quit as well to protest President Trump’s immigration order.

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer — an annual global survey of 33,000 individuals in 29 countries and their level of trust in businesses, government and institutions — found that a majority of people expect companies to address society’s needs in everyday business. Most consumers, in fact, are buying products based on political views.

The survey proposes: “In a system that many view as broken, institutions must step outside of their traditional — and siloed — roles. It is the shared responsibility of business, NGOs, government and media to fulfill the needs — and ease the fears — of their stakeholders.”

Addressing social problems is indeed complicated. Words need to be chosen carefully so to avoid unintended offenses. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, messages are easily mangled and misquoted.

But CEO’s are figuring out it might not be that hard.

When Mr. Paul stepped down from the council, he tweeted, simply, “It was the right thing for me to do.”

He couldn’t have spoken more plainly. And it couldn’t have been an easier statement to draft.

Laurie Hays is executive vice president, financial communications & capital markets, at Edelman in New York.

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