Business and their top executives are understandably nervous about jumping into political storms. Speaking out during times of unrest holds many risks.
People disagreeing with your view are quick to encourage boycotts on social media, while an army of risk-averse corporate PR men and women will warn their bosses of potential harm to a company’s brand.
During heated and polarised public debates, even the most nuanced of statements can be taken out of context and appropriated by one side or the other.
However, it is not uncommon for CEOs to ruminate over broad macro-economic issues and political trends – at events such as Davos, for example, or during media interviews.
WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell is renowned for reeling off “black swans” and “grey swans” during trading updates; in other words, events that in his opinion pose a threat to business.
It makes perfect sense for chief executives to comment on what’s happening in the world. No business is an island. In fact, every enterprise in every country is inherently tied up with political, economic and social developments.
Sorrell took to the airwaves this week to voice his “instinctive dislike” of President Donald Trump’s controversial effort to ban people travelling from seven Muslim-majority countries to the US.
He echoed similar sentiment from American tech bosses who have been the most vocal business figures to speak out against Trump’s executive order.
However, even Sorrell was cautious when speaking, repeatedly stressing that his views did not represent WPP as a whole. And the reactions of many banking CEOs were extremely conservative; three days after Trump signed the order, it emerged top investment bankers had written to staff to offer the company’s support to anyone affected.
Most of the statements gave a nod to the global banking giants’ belief in having an international and diverse workforce, but were otherwise dry and avoided the thrust of the issue.
This is a shame. High-profile, highly-paid chief executives should not be seen as grey-suited beancounters operating on the fringes of public debate.
They are leaders in positions of power, heading up companies that are often pivotal to our economies and even our way of life. No one expects a running political commentary, but when significant events occur – especially those that threaten the principles of free trade and liberalism – it is right that the voice of business is heard.