CEOs wondering if it’s safe to wade into America’s divisive political waters take note. Members of the public, if they were in a CEO’s shoes, would most likely elect to stay on the shore.
Three-quarters of more than 23,000 Americans questioned by Harris Poll said that if they led a large company, they would avoid taking a stand. The finding, released Monday, may be heartening for silent leaders who fear they’ll be castigated for appearing to sit on the fence, and perhaps concerning for those with more outspoken views.
As we recently reported, the experiences of Under Armor’s Kevin Plank show the potential brand damage that can be done for criticizing or, in Plank’s case, praising Donald Trump.
“We know that companies that have taken very public stands for their beliefs are reputationally rewarded by consumers of similar conservative or liberal views, but there also is clear risk among those who feel otherwise,” said Harris Polls’ Wendy Salomon.
To be sure, the best path for CEOs to take still isn’t entirely clear. Although they’d be reluctant to speak up themselves, 51% of survey respondents still expected companies to have a clear position on visible political matters. Some 59%, though, said understanding a company’s position on political issues wasn’t that important.
“Americans’ polarized views of whether or not companies should engage in politically-charged issues makes this uncharted territory,” Salomon said. “It’s an exceptionally tricky area for CEOs and other business leaders to navigate.”
Attempting to find a way through could be a matter of assessing your customer base. For example, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s decision to quit Trump’s economic advisory council wasn’t altogether surprising, given that a large proportion of the ride-hailing app’s customers are younger Americans who where less likely to vote for Trump.
The geographic location of a companies’ customer touch points also could be an important factor to consider, as could company histories.
A separate Harris Poll study released last month found that Republicans held the reputations of companies that have vocally shared their conservative beliefs, such as Chick-fil-A, more favorably. Although Chick-fil-A has restaurants all over the country, including a large outlet in Manhattan, many of them are in midwestern and southern states. The company also has a long history of appealing to conservative values: it doesn’t open on Sundays, for example.
Overall, Republicans were found in the latest survey to hold business leaders in higher regard. Democrats, however, rated CEOs in the media industry more highly, perhaps in a demonstration of their frustration over the president’s war against the established press.