Yesterday, CEOs of more than 100 major corporations sent a letter to Congress to pass legislation to protect undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. For the past 6 months, APCO has been studying the rise in corporations taking a stand on political or social issues to understand how corporations can most effectively take on these issues. Through focus groups and surveys among hyper-aware and influential consumers, we pressure tested real scenarios to understand how companies can most effectively take on today’s hot button issues.

For companies or CEOs jumping into the immigration discussion, our research found that it is one of the most controversial political issues a company can take on. Of a list of 11 social and political issues a CEO could speak out on, immigration and gun control received the lowest levels of approval (48% and 46% respectively said it was OK for CEOs to speak out on these issues). Political affiliation influences this thinking – Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to believe that it is OK for CEOs to speak out on immigration (60% vs. 29%).

In this politically charged atmosphere, how does a company take on an issue like immigration successfully? Our research indicates that companies can be most effective on immigration if they make the business case for their action or use their business expertise to address the issue. Furthermore, our research reveals that actions are better received than public statements or simple tweets. In this day age, if a company wants to get behind an issue, it’s about doing, not talking.

However, any grand action has the potential to backfire if it does not reflect its stakeholder’s values and opinions. Like-minded consumers will appreciate the effort (and reward companies with loyalty), but those with an opposing viewpoint will be turned off. Now more than ever it is critical for companies to understand how their customers and key stakeholders view the world and view these controversial issues.

What does this mean for corporate communicators?

  1. Be prepared: Before an issue strikes and pulls you in, now is the time to understand how your stakeholders view controversial issues you might face. This knowledge will influence how you act.
  2. Be yourself: Companies that use their business to address problems facing society will be rewarded with increased loyalty among customers. Start thinking about what you are good at and how you can help.
  3. Be mindful: Our research confirms that there are growing expectations among hyper-aware consumers for companies to factor society into their everyday business decisions, but generally a perception that most companies are solely motivated by shareholders. Where are you on this spectrum?

In the coming weeks, APCO will be releasing more insight into how companies can effectively take a stand on these sensitive social, environmental and political issues. Stay tuned!

Katie Sprehe

Kathleen Holzwart Sprehe, senior director with APCO Insight, has extensive experience conducting opinion research in more than 50 countries around the world. Read More