When I was young, my mother said to never talk about politics or religion. Why? Because they cause conflict. But times have changed. In this new, highly opinionated age of masked heroes bravely touting their beliefs behind the safety of a keyboard, it seems like people are running towards conflict instead of away from it. Including CEOs of some of the world’s most influential companies.

The image of a stoic company leader rattling off the neutral, PR-approved mission statement seems to be a thing of the past. Instead, more and more CEOs are diving into conflict headfirst, but instead of getting angry, their customers are liking it more and more.

A study conducted by international PR firm Weber Shandwick showed that the general public’s awareness of CEO activism has grown significantly in the last few years. Also, on the rise? The likelihood of consumers buying from companies they agree with. The study also showed Americans expect this number to increase even more, and overall, they seem to have a favorable opinion of CEO activism.

However, as PR professionals, we know there is an inherent risk when CEOs take a stance on a hot-button issue. Considering this, Weber Shandwick outlined a few key principles for CEOs to consider BEFORE they choose to speak out.

  1. Recognize that CEO activism is on the rise and here to stay.

  2. Determine which issues are most important to speak out on – some are “safer” than others.

  3. Establish a link between the issue and the company’s mission and values.

  4. Discuss the pros and cons with the board of directors. (Boards do not like surprises).

  5. Look in the mirror. Make sure there are no skeletons in the closet related to the issue.

  6. Commit the time and resources. Big issues require long-term, bold and focused dedication.

  7. Accept the expectation that CEOs have a role to play in influencing governmental policy.

  8. Consider employees. Asses how they would be impacted by the CEO’s stance and gauge their support.

  9. Ensure market intelligence is up-to-date.

  10. Consider the channels, messages and tone-of-voice used, ensuring that everything is clearly and transparently articulated.

  11. Have a crisis preparedness plan in place for a potential social media firestorm.

  12. Develop a thick skin – the pitchforks WILL come out.

The lesson for CEOs? Activism is a risk, BUT it has a big reward from consumers IF done right.

To view Weber Shandwick’s complete study on CEO activism, click here.