Only four Indian CEOs have ever spoken on issues such as caste discrimination, religious intolerance, freedom of speech, rights of women and members of the LBGTQ community, agricultural distress and labour rights, a Twitter data analysis shows…
An Oxfam India Twitter data analysis found that CEOs in India rarely engage, barring few examples, with issues of civil and human rights. Oxfam India research did not find any public statements or media reports of these CEOs other than these tweets. Only 20 among the BSE 100 CEOs have a Twitter profile. And only four have ever spoken on civil and human rights issues.
Role of Twitter in CEO Activism
Twitter profiles of CEOs of BSE 100 companies were analysed for keywords and themes around caste discrimination, religious intolerance, freedom of speech, rights of women and members of the LBGTQI community, agricultural distress and labour rights from March 2010 to December 2018. These were the most popular civil and human rights issues in the last eight years. Except four in the list, most use Twitter as an extension of the brands they represent.
Twitter is among the most powerful communication technologies ever built. It lets user voice their opinion with 280 character notes. And unlike older communication technologies such as print and broadcast, which offer one to many one way communication, the micro-blogging site Twitter allows one to many two way conversations.
It can be used for broadcasting of messages, the way most news organisations and journalists use it; for mobilizing people, as in the case of Arab Spring; for crowdsourcing information, as a Customer Relations Management tool, the way most banks and telecom companies use it, and for engagement, the way most brands use it.
Amplification and engagement such technologies is also a function of the offline social capital an individual or a brand. Celebrities, sports persons, politicians, entrepreneurs, CEOs, public intellectuals, journalists etc. have an outsized reach and engagement on such technologies.
CEO Activism a Global trend?
Technologies such as Twitter give CEOs amplification to influence politics and conversations on public issues. Anand Mahindra, Elon Musk, Tim Cook, Indra Nooyi, Satya Nadella, etc. often use Twitter to lend their voices to causes they support and are passionate about.
Such technologies make it easier to voice opinions in public. This in turn, helps celebrities, sports persons, politicians, entrepreneurs, CEOs, public intellectuals, journalists etc., target users base
d on their social sensibilities. When CEOs use such platforms, it helps signal the values that they as individuals and their companies stand for. In such a situation, CEO activism is a sensible course of action to help move conversations in a positive and progressive direction.
In the US, after President Donald Trump introduced protectionist measures, anti-immigration stance, and escalated trade wars, CEOs criticized him on Twitter. In each of these instances, CEOs were able to draw support on such technologies to bring nuance into public discourse on such issues.
While Indian CEOs are vocal about global issues, when it comes to matters closer home, they are mostly silent. In the past five years, democracy and human rights in the country have regressed, this includes wanton lynchings across the country under the garb of cow protection, protectionist policies such as the recent e-commerce policy, increased surveillance, a five decade high unemployment, an agricultural crisis, a crisis of leadership across institutions, etc.
Between 2015 and 2017, India has witnessed a multitude of protests trying to hold the government accountable for rising religious and caste atrocities, increased agricultural and labour distress, shrinking freedom of speech and rights of women and members of the LGBTQI community. India’s civil society has been facing the brunt of a strongman government that is opposed to any form of dissent. Threats to civil society are a threat to the society as a whole. Currently, it is a global phenomenon.
In mature democracies such as US and Europe, corporations and corporate leaders have come to protect this space. In the US, CEOs pushed back against the recent anti-immigration proposals by President Trump. Google and Microsoft also dropped lucrative surveillance contracts from the Pentagon. In Britain, CEOs have pushed back against Brexit.
At a time when India is going through socio-economic unrest and increased polarization, it is surprising that CEOs of the Indian industry have kept mum on such issues.
Significance of CEO Activism
Companies are expected to take a public stand on social issues. According to The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Institutional Investors, 76 per cent of investors believe that companies have an urgent obligation to take a public stand on one or more social issues to ensure the global business environment remains healthy and robust.
The need to take a stand also comes from customer expectations. At a time of increased global polarization and failing trust in institutions such as governments and political parties, consumers are increasingly looking up to CEOs to take the lead and speak.
More people trust businesses over governments and expect CEOs to lead the change instead of waiting for the government to impose it, according to The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand report. The report further states that two in every three consumers today are driven by the stand taken by a brand or a CEO on a controversial issue.
While taking a public stand comes at the cost of alienating some consumers, it presents an untapped opportunity to boost customer loyalty and brand reputation. Brands face more reward than risk. Consumers are mostly positive about brands and business leaders taking a stand on the issue. “When consumers’ personal beliefs align with what brands are saying, 28% will publicly praise a company. When individuals disagree with the brand’s stance, 20% will publicly criticize a company,” according to Championing Change in the Age of Social Media published by Sprout Social a social media analytics company.
Outspoken CEOs also attract employee loyalty and can become role models for future leaders. Most employees value their CEOs when they take a position on issues such as women’s rights, inequality, discrimination and LGBTQI issues, according to the BRANDfog & McPherson Strategies 2018 CEOs Speaking Out on Social Media Survey published in 2018.
By keeping quiet on key issues, CEOs in India are wasting away opportunity to connect with consumers and increase employee and brand loyalty.