Should CEOs Speak Out?

We asked public-company board members to tell us how they feel about corporate leaders taking a public stance on political and social issues. Their response? It's complicated.


Despite the fact that the majority of directors (57 percent) said that CEOs should consult with their boards before speaking out publicly on a controversial issue, many don’t, according to survey respondents. Among directors whose CEOs have taken a public stance, 23 percent said he or she never or rarely consults the board in these matters.

Many respondents suggested that directors should have a say in any statement made. “As the board’s responsibility is to represent the interests of the shareholders of the company,” said a director at a large-cap industrial company, “it is critical that [directors] are involved, at a minimum in an oversight role, in any policies of the corporation, especially if they are publicly stated.”

A director at a small-cap financial firm agreed that the board should be consulted, or at the very least informed prior to the statement being made. “I believe that the CEO should make the ultimate call on speaking out, but the CEO has a duty to inform the board. The board should never be surprised by the CEO’s decision.”

While directors cannot stop a CEO from speaking out, one respondent argued that the board should take action if a CEO’s decision negatively impacts the company. “The board shouldn’t muzzle the CEO,” explained the committee chair of an energy company, “but it has the obligation—rather than the right—to take action against an individual who makes a public statement that harms the company. Everyone has the right to say whatever they want, but that right doesn’t protect you from consequences if the comments harm others.”

Despite concern over potential consequences, only 7 percent of respondents reported having a formal plan or guidelines in place to address this particular situation.


“I believe that companies (and their CEOs) should not take political positions. They should represent all shareholders and not use the company to advance a particular CEO’s political position.”

“Generally, I think CEOs should refrain from taking a political stance. However, we live in extreme times, and I applaud the CEOs who stood up against hatred and bigotry and quit Trump’s business group. In that case, they were standing up for their employees by stating they wouldn’t accept racism.”

“Social issues or government policies that could affect the company or its employees are different than speaking out on ‘political’ issues. Discrimination of various kinds, for example, is a social issue that can also become a political issue. I would support a CEO speaking out on behalf of the company on such issues, as long as [he or she] also had the board’s support.”

“Speaking out on social [and] political issues where an important principle is involved is not only right but [it also] showcases what people are really made of as opposed to an artificially adopted persona somehow dictated by a corporate risk mentality. It isn’t a matter of gaining or losing customers. It is a matter of doing what is right, i.e., not pretending that you speak for the stockholders.”

“CEOs should tread lightly in this area. Well-meaning people (and customers!) are on opposite sides of political and social issues, and there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason for a CEO to interject his or her opinion in these debates unless the company is directly involved.”


Does your company have a crisis management plan that deals with the potential backlash emerging from a CEO or someone representing the company speaking publicly about a social issue or participating in a political or social event? (Select all that apply)

30% Yes, but it is not specific to political or social statements
26% Not formally, but we have discussed this as a board
15% No, all company representatives clear such actions with the board first
14% Other
7% Yes, and we have implemented guidelines across the company
6% No, we do not see any downside to speaking publicly about our views and values
5% No, we feel the benefits outweigh the risks


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