Effects of CEO activism on employee prosocial behavior – Scholar Q&A

September 5, 2023 • Jonathan McVerry

Young Kim and Katharine Miller

It’s become common for companies to take stands on social issues. But what about the leaders who decide what stances to take? And how does their decision relate to their employees? Young Kim and Katharine Miller from Marquette University are leading two studies to learn the effects of CEO activism on company stakeholders, particularly employees. The first-time Page Center scholars will examine different forms of messaging from CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies. They will follow that research up by conducting an experimental study with employees at those companies, which will reveal how leaders can effectively communicate activism in a way that increases prosocial behaviors among employees. This project is part of the Center’s 2023 call for research proposals on prosocial communication.

From the perspective of your research and your research interests, how do you define prosocial communication?

Miller: When it comes to corporate social advocacy and corporate social responsibility, prosocial communication is about how organizations benefit others – publics and stakeholders, but also society in general. When we say prosocial behavior, we’re talking about positive actions and practices that help society. That can be helping, sharing, partnering, donating, and volunteering to generate and maintain social well-being. And when it comes to the communication part, we like to think about it from the organizational perspective, which is strategically increasing awareness of prosocial efforts. It can be changing publics’ attitudes about prosocial behavior or action that the organization is doing that encourages others to get involved.

What do you think of the increase in corporate advocacy that we’ve seen recently? And what are your thoughts on the backlash some campaigns have received?

Miller: Companies will be very vocal and then all of a sudden, they're pulling back. Maybe they're rethinking something or they're being, what we call, strategically silent. I talk about this with my students. There are a lot of companies pushed to take a stand, but when they do – or in some cases, they choose not to, which is in a way saying something – they must understand that there are consequences depending on what you say, how you say it, and who you’re speaking to. We are seeing this at the individual CEO level and also by the organization as a whole. It can be hard to navigate. So, it’s a really interesting time to be studying these practices.

Kim: In my classes, we emphasize the communication managers who monitor what’s happening inside and outside of the company. They can identify what kind of issue is important for their company and for the public. And they can decide on whether or not to take action. So, yes, the timing is very important because we know there are stakeholders who have certain expectations for their corporations’ social actions. The timing of campaigns can cause backlash. Also, it is important to consider how they respond to social issues and which social issues they choose to respond to in order to avoid the backlash.

Can you share your plan for the project? First, how will you get an idea of what CEOs are doing and/or thinking? And second, how will you learn about the employee side of things?

Miller: We are conducting two different studies that work together and work off each other. The first one is a qualitative study where we collect and analyze public CEO statements about some sort of activism … or they're speaking on a particular social issue. We looked at three broad categories of what we call key societal or social issues — specifically, whether it's global, national or workplace. So, we've been collecting data from statements by CEOs from Fortune 500 companies in the United States from January to May in different domains like social media, interviews or public statements. It was interesting to see what CEOs or companies were more vocal about on certain issues. We’ll see what CEOs are saying and where they are saying it and start from there.

Kim: September through December, we're going to work on the second study, which is the online experimental study with almost one thousand full-time employees. We hired a survey firm that is widely used in employee research. We're going to have full-time employees who work at Fortune 500 companies to investigate what types of CEO message styles would be effective for their prosocial behaviors. We hope to learn how corporate leaders’ activist communication can help employees make sense of their messages and engage in the prosocial communication and social behavior.

What do you expect to learn from this project that you could give to one of these companies that will help them make smarter, more strategic choices?

Miller: Even though Young and I are academics, we both have a mutual interest in providing practical insights. We study organizations. We study employees. So, it makes sense to go back and provide what we’ve learned to professionals and executives. We really hope to have broad takeaways from this and get an understanding of how CEOs communicate activism on social issues. What’s cool about our project is that we are going to be working with actual employees. We want to understand what issues are really most evident. We also want to know what impact it has on employee understanding of the issue. And what does it then mean for an employee to engage in their own advocacy and prosocial behaviors?

Kim: You see it in the news headlines. For example, Hollywood actors and actresses speaking out on the writer’s strike. And with UPS truckers, they were striking for better working conditions. In other words, if you’re working in similar companies or serving the same industry, you have the same expectations. What about my company? What about our CEO? What kind of benefit is there when they speak out on social issues? That is something we can provide in terms of practical implications, but also, we contribute to the body of knowledge of prosocial communication. There are a lot of studies on corporate social advocacy and prosocial communication, but in the area of employees, there is a lack of research. We can provide a theoretical framework that companies can apply to prosocial campaigns that encourage employee engagement.