Why CEO activism is a double-edged sword that needs to be wielded with caution

As organisations shifted to the Work From Home mode due to the pandemic last year, we saw various ingenious ways that business leaders adopted to keep their teams motivated and get the best out of them as they worked in isolation, along with reassuring them in tough times.

CEOs have a voice beyond the board room and their influence has a significant impact on how businesses are carried out. These CEO influencers not just encourage their teams to dream big, but also openly voice their opinions participate in the business process wholeheartedly.

Indians business leaders such as Anand Mahindra, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, and Deepinder Goyal are among the many CEO influencers who have a strong sway on the public opinion of their organisations. This is now the age of the ‘modern CEO’, where influence is a confluence of many factors. That power has to be exercised carefully, because a lot is at stake for organisations. CEOs need to be the vanguard of their organisations. Indeed, heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Adgully turned the focus on ‘Rise of CEO Influencers’ in its flagship #TwitterChat property on Friday, January 29, 2021, and delved on the emergence of the business leader who is empathetic, more open and knows how to engage well with their audiences in the digital era.

Taking part in the discussions was an expert panel comprising:

Ankit Agarwal, Founder, Do Your Thng - @_MrDigital

Anup Sharma, Independent Communications Consultant, Senior Director - PRCAI - @TweetsAnup

Chiragh Cherian, Director, Online and Below the Line Perfect Relations - @chiraghcherian

Neel Gogia, CEO, IPLIX Media - @gogia_neel

Pranav Kumar, India Head, Allison + Partners - @pranav_kumar

Sushmita Bandopadhyay, Communications Leader, BD India/South Asia - @tangled26

Tarunjeet Rattan, Managing Partner, Nucleus PR - @mindtweak123

The complete Twitter conversation below:

What do people think about a CEO who speaks about his/her company?

Ankit Agarwal: Influencer is a loosely used term; I would call them brand advocates. The moment the chief advocates the product, it humanises the brand to a large extent and creates a better connect of the product/ brand with the audience.

Chiragh Cherian: If your brand is channelling energy and resources to build an online brand, leaving out any focus on the CEO’s own media is an opportunity wasted.

Sushmita Bandopadhyay: Only if the CEO wants to be. CEO is the ultimate custodian/ ambassador of the brand. If a CEO can inspire the community, exude authenticity, demonstrate purposeful leadership and trustworthiness, then there can be no other better brand ambassador than the CEO!

Tarunjeet Rattan: Yes. Why not? She/he is a very strong advocate of your company and I daresay your biggest brand ambassador. Why would you not want to use them to add credibility to your company? A decade ago, most CEOs shied away from coming into the limelight for own their brand. The startup CEOs have changed the game as have some trailblazers in Corp Inc. They wore their brand on their sleeves. And that sparked an idea whose time has come.

Pranav Kumar: A CEO’s role in cementing and maintaining reputation has never been so important today if you see what’s happening around us, polarisation, waning institutional trust. It’s time for companies to step up. CEOs play a massive role in that.

Anup Sharma: In the digitally-connected age, corporations have the challenge to be alert and proactive to cut through the noise with credibility and stand out in the crowd to be seen as authentic and trustworthy. While there may not be written guidelines always, but organisations do keep a tab on their employees, including CEOs, in taking a public stand on issues which could cause embarrassment to the organisation and its brand.

Neel Gogia: It looks quite impressive to me as it gives confidence to the public and they have a public figure where they can rely on and relate the company’s vision via an individual.

What is the consumer perception of CEOs who are vocal about their company?

Ankit Agarwal: Vocal CEOs are on the rise. You don’t have to look further than Elon Musk or Anand Mahindra. There is pressure on CEOs to voice views on different topics. Why? Because they are the face of the company. When CEOs are vocal, consumers feel executive leadership is taking action.

Tarunjeet Rattan: A word of caution – If you choose to build your brand as a CEO, then you also need to walk the talk. Just doing PR around it is not enough. You need to be able to live it through and through.

Anup Sharma: The trend of leaders speaking out on social policy influence public opinions and consumer attitudes about the CEO’s company. Check the report by Aaron K. Chatterji & Michael W. Toffel, authors of ‘CEO Activism’


Sushmita Bandopadhyay: Perceptions are created due to a pattern. Words and actions have to converge. Having a voice but no heart can do more harm than ever. Authenticity, organisational purpose must be at the center of the CEO’s character to influence and build credibility with people at large. Even if products are A class and the CEO is highly influential, but if the company is found indulging in unethical business, I am sure it will have a rub off effect on the brand value.

Pranav Kumar: Consumers demand more from their brands, especially millennials. They expect brands and their CEOs to up hold values and stand for something. Thus, CEOs play a strong role in overall stewardship. Consumers view CEOs favourably who are vocal about their company. Also, a year that companies realised the importance of corporate reputation and what an important asset it can be, in perpetuity and in insulating organisations from crises.

Neel Gogia: As consumers start relating the brand with the CEO, his/her actions become important as it can affect the way people look at the company. For example, everyone recognises Tesla via Elon Musk. On the other side, nobody even knows about the leadership of Samsung.

Chiragh Cherian: It is not just what the CEO says, but their social personality sets the tone for the brand’s personality.

Role of the CEO in reputation management

Chiragh Cherian: In times of crisis, a CEO has to take control of the narrative. Situations that one can be exposed to are:

  1. Correcting misconceptions
  2. Driving the correct narrative
  3. Predicting the next issue

Ankit Agarwal: The CEO and company reputation are linked together like DNA strands. They set the tone and perception of the business and are also responsible for the acts within the company. Think about Vijay Mallya and Kingfisher’s reputation and you would know what I mean.

Sushmita Bandopadhyay: CEOs are stewards of the company that they represent and they must have the audacity to stand up for what’s not right, what’s unethical or what’s damaging not only to the brand, but also its employees and customers.

Anup Sharma: In today’s ‘activist economy’, a brand’s value is becoming intertwined and indistinguishable. Quoting Lloyd Mathias, “Companies have to navigate this space carefully without seeming uncaring”. In the recent past, we have witnessed some of the most iconic consumer brands like Nestle’s Maggi, Johnson & Johnson, IndiGo Airlines coming under major attack for their delayed, which may have been better managed by being proactive.

Tarunjeet Rattan: CEOs play a crucial and pivotal role in it. Their individual credibility has a huge rub-off effect on the company that they manage. That credibility is crucial in times of crisis. You want a person you trust to take charge and steer you through a crisis. The conversations that they choose to give their voice to have the power to change the narrative and the system. Case in point – Facebook Vs Corp Inc heavyweights.

Pranav Kumar: More than often than not that job falls unequivocally on the CEO, who serves as the pivotal conduit between the boardroom and stakeholders at large. CEOs have to lead from the front. Transparency and expedient communication are essential in managing a crisis.

Neel Gogia: CEO is the captain of the ship and a captain needs to save a drowning ship, if needed. He/she should lead from the front and face the public and try to bring the confidence back.

Does an overexposed CEO influencer make organisations vulnerable?

Pranav Kumar: Definitely. CEO activism is a double-edged sword. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. A single misstep from a CEO can backfire and make the business far more vulnerable. CEOs must assess before they speak up, ensuring that their views don’t seem hypocritical or cheap publicity stunts.

Neel Gogia: Definitely. Most companies like to play safe, hence we see a few CEOs talking out loud on social media. The right structure shall be set and the CEO should know when not to cross the line on social media. Since one tweet can change the dynamics of the entire company.

Tarunjeet Rattan: Yes. That is a definite possibility. Being too available also reduces your credibility. You need to champion a few select causes. Being available on everything and for everyone will just spread you thin and chip away at your #credibility.

Sushmita Bandopadhyay: Values have to match both the CEO and the company. If CEO is larger than life, he/she must also be prepared to face the worst when it comes to it. CEOs must be courageous and not fall prey to the temptation of just being popular to further their personal agenda.

Anup Sharma: In 2018, Anand Mahindra had said that pressure from shareholders for higher returns prevents India Inc from speaking out on social issues and getting embroiled in controversies. But today, he regularly voices his opinions about various issues. In June-July 2020, more than 100 major corporates, including Microsoft, Starbucks, Ford, Honda, Coca-Cola, Conagra, joined hands to pull advertising from Facebook as part of the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign.

Pranav Kumar: Corporate reputation transcends CEOs, yet each individual leader who dons that mantle has to do his/her part to keep it intact. A company founded on strong values, ethics and radical transparency won’t have that issue. In some cases, it can be a problem.

Neel Gogia: What do you think about someone like @elonmusk? He’s too vocal and it has both pros and cons. I am sure he doesn’t listen to any strategist too.

Impact of the activist CEO on the company

Chiragh Cherian: The impact is significant, which is why sometimes what the CEO does and says impacts more than a successful or failed brand campaign.

Ankit Agarwal: Deepinder Goyal impacted Zomato when he proudly tweeted, “We aren’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values” on the issue of a customer demanding to change delivery agent because of religion. Huge win for the company with that one.

Pranav Kumar: I think we don’t have to go too far, look at the US and a prime example of deferring leadership styles and its implications. Not just about CEOs, but of countries as well.

Sushmita Bandopadhyay: CEO’s role is to exhibit a high-level leadership – thinking about about the near, future and distant. They must be a part of the change, either by leading or participating. During the pandemic, we have seen some extraordinary leadership examples.

Tarunjeet Rattan: If the CEO has a positive, strong reputation that can weather a crisis, irrespective of any business they do, consumers will choose to do business with them. For example, Ratan Tata and his start-up portfolio; Anand Mahindra, Narayana Murthy, Indra Nooyi, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw.

Who came first – the CEO or the infuencer?

Tarunjeet Rattan: The CEO came first…no question about that. And s/he was always an influencer. Though the influencer in her/him was realised along the way much later. In the last decade, it has been taken to a whole different level with media, social media, PR, and marketing in the picture.

Ankit Agarwal: Both. I am a big fan of non-linear links of events. In the real world, things do not happen in a set order, think of it as a circle which has no beginning and no end to it.

Anup Sharma: It’s about timing – the agility and response time – so you are seen as a transparent organisation that is ready to take on whatever comes your way, instantly. The CEO cannot chicken out.

Chiragh Cherian: The influencer. If you have the influence and the weight to what you think, say and do, you are cut out to be a CEO and an influencer, else you are just susceptible to #birdflu.

Pranav Kumar: I’d say the CEO Influencer came first for they always made or razed companies to the ground. Influence assumed new meaning in an age of social media, which, of course, led to the emergence of the influencer.

Sushmita Bandopadhyay: Once upon a time there was a CEO. The CEO became popular. His opinions began to matter. His wisdom was sought after. Thus, he became an influencer.

Neel Gogia: Definitely the CEO, social media presence is more like a PR activity.


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