In a survey of communications and marketing executives, Chinese respondents rated the importance of CEOs addressing specific social, political or environmental issues (such as climate change, income fairness, same-sex marriage, immigration, gun control and discrimination) more highly than did respondents in the US and UK.
The survey, by Weber Shandwick with KRC Research, suggests that CEO activism should be a larger part of the corporate communications agenda in China.
The online survey was conducted in May 2018 with 500 communications and marketing executives in the US (300), UK (100) and China (100). These executives work in a variety of industries and levels, and all their companies earn a minimum annual revenue of US$250 million.
85% of executives in China are personally in favour of their own CEOs taking a public position on issues. Only 56% of UK and US executives think the same way.
"The China responses reflect what respondents want their CEOs to be ideally doing. These are projections of their wishes," interpreted Lydia Lee, China president and global co-head of technology at Weber Shandwick.
In reality, CEOs and founders in China do not speak out enough, due to Chinese values of harmony and passivity. Those values are on the minds of CEOs, explained Lee. But younger communications and marketing staffers, especially the post-90s generation, are trying to find their place in the world and looking to these older CEOs for moral leadership.
With Trump, Brexit and digital disrupting the world order, there is a "vacuum of moral leadership" right now, said Lee.
The CEOs in China who do speak out, at times, rile up the crowds with controversial remarks. Three weeks ago, Li Guoqing (pictured below), co-founder of online bookstore Dangdang apologised for his remarks downplaying the alleged rape case involving the prominent JD CEO, Liu Qiangdong. "It's not sexual assault and just extramarital sex, so no harm to shareholders and employees... It's not prostitution, so the negative impact on society is low," Li wrote on his Weibo account on 23 December.
In the Weber survey, a considerable percentage in China (92%) said their companies dedicated time to debating whether their CEOs should speak out on hotly-debated current issues or not, versus 46% in the US and 35% in the UK.
And 72% of those already-active Chinese companies have been increasing the time spent in discussion over the past few years. Unsurprisingly, two in three executives in China say their CEO is better prepared to respond to issues compared to one year ago. CEOs in China need a greater sense of self in order to rally others, Lee added.
Globally, communications and marketing departments are not shying away from CEO activism in general, said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist of Weber Shandwick, in a release. “Our research reveals that communications and marketing professionals are placing activism squarely on their C-level agendas and recognise that having business leaders be vocal on issues can strengthen a company’s reputation for the long term.”
In today's era of transparency, authenticity and honesty, where everyone expresses their opinion online, these CEOs "cannot hide anymore", Lee told Campaign China.