There’s no question the 2020 US election was unusual in every way. But there was one particular aspect which was especially interesting to corporate comms professionals: CEOs played an important role during one of the most turbulent times in recent American history.
Many business leaders engaged in CEO political activism early on – even those who normally try to stay away from politics. For instance, on Nov. 6, more than two dozen CEOs of major corporations took part in a video conference to discuss what to do if Trump refuses to leave office or takes other steps to stay in power. And when Trump and many Republicans tried to dispute the outcome of the election, nearly 200 top US CEOs publicly urged a smooth transition of power by pressing Congress to certify Biden’s electoral victory in a letter.
The letter asserted that the duly elected leaders deserve the respect and bipartisan support of all Americans at a moment when the nation is dealing with the worst health and economic crises in modern history. Among the signatories were BlackRock’s Larry Fink, Deloitte’s Punit Renjen and Pfizer’s Albert Bourla. In addition, many business leaders considered pulling financial support for congressional Republicans who were backing Trump’s election challenge in order to spread the message that “it’s time to move on and respect the Constitution.”
CEOs continued voicing their political stances after the dust from the election settled. To find what execs expect from the Biden administration, Fortune conducted a survey of CEOs in collaboration with Deloitte, which concluded that restoring trust in government (59%) and addressing the pandemic and economic crisis (55%) are the two areas CEOs most want Biden to prioritise. The issues that dominated the Trump years, like trade (21%) and immigration (5%), are much lower on CEOs’ to-do list for Biden. And just under infrastructure, CEOs list climate change (32%) and education/workforce training (30%) as priorities.
CEOs get political
To find out how CEOs shaped the media conversation around Biden’s victory, we analysed 1,117 articles published in top-tier English-language outlets between 5 October and 31 January.
We identified the most central CEOs by determining their influence score, which measures a CEO’s visibility in top-tier online media outlets, such as the New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, Reuters, Bloomberg and Forbes. It is a metric similar to Google’s Page Rank and it applies a mathematical method to measure both the quantity and quality of connections between a CEO and the media outlets.
We found that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was the most central executive in the discussion:
Zuckerberg, who usually tries to stay away from politics, featured in many media reports for acknowledging at a company-wide meeting thatBiden will be the next president. Some commentators noted that Zuckerberg has become the subject of criticism from several Biden campaign staffers who have complained about Facebook’s handling of election ads and the impact misinformation has had on democracy.
In 2016, many Democrats blamed Facebook and the use of Cambridge Analytica to micro-target voters for the outcomes of the election. But as the social media giant got through the 2020 election without any claims of foreign interference or rampant misinformation, employees at Facebook told CNBC that the feeling inside the company is mostly relieved.
Many media outlets started deliberating over the future relationship between Zuckerberg and Biden, noting that while Obama’s administration was considered to be close to Silicon Valley and to Zuckerberg, Biden might go a different route. In fact, the president often uses Facebook as a byword for the ills of a free internet gone wrong.
Talking to the New York Times a year ago he said: “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem.” And Biden’s deputy head of communications, Bill Russo, tweeted: “If you thought disinformation on Facebook was a problem during our election, just wait until you see how it is shredding the fabric of our democracy in the days after.”
Other business leaders like General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Microsoft president and CEO Satya Nadella, Target chairman and chief executive Brian Cornell and Sonia Syngal, the CEO of Gap, earned their centrality in the media debate because they attended a virtual meeting with Biden in November. The attendance of such high-profile CEOs was more noteworthy because it was perceived as a public endorsement of Biden’s legitimacy as president-elect.
GM’s Barra was more prominent due to her company’s commitment to align with Biden’s endorsement of electric vehicles by increasing the number of EVs it will bring to market – GM will offer 30 new EVs by 2025, up from its previous goal to offer 20 by 2023.
Meanwhile, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co, releaseda set of policy recommendations for ways Biden can prevent a coming wave of economic misery and reduce inequality in a post-Covid world. The first priority is for lawmakers to agree on another round of pandemic relief payments to lower-income households and extending benefits for the unemployed, according to the paper.
In a rare comment on politics, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who also serves as the Business Roundtable’s chairman, expressed well-wishes to Biden. Following the insurrection at the US Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, Walmart and other major companies engaged in rethinking their political activity by suspending contributions to the 147 Republicans who tried to overturn Biden’s victory.
McMillon said it makes sense that companies are reviewing their political giving and that businesses won’t remain on the sidelines for long: “Not participating in the process…could create other issues. There is still a role for business to play. We just want to do it in a thoughtful way. He also suggested that companies could “reward the centrists” in order to encourage more bipartisan behaviour.
Tech CEOs were also eager to publicise their thoughts. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos celebrated Biden and Harris’ win in an Instagram post, saying their victory signifies that “unity, empathy and decency are not characteristics of a bygone era.” The Amazon founder hasn’t had a good relationship with Trump, who critised Bezos over his ownership of The Washington Post, Amazon’s tax record and its relationship with the Postal Service.
Elon Musk told Fortune Magazine he’s “super fired up” Biden’s focus on the environment and wants to find a way to help out on the administration’s initiatives for expanding green energy. And Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has been a vocal critic of Trump’s coronavirus response, said he looked forward to “working with the new administration and leaders on both sides in Congress on getting the surging pandemic under control.”
We employed Influencer Network Analysis, our patented methodology that uses natural language processing (NLP), text mining, dynamic visualisation and human enrichment, to analyse the recent media discussion around corporate reactions to the new Biden administration.
The media discussion around the relevant companies is presented as a two-mode network map (see below), displaying the major companies (circles) and the publications (squares) that referenced the firms in the coverage. The size of the circles indicates the firms’ prominence in the media discussion.
In this case, we presented the three most influential CEOs in red, the mid-tier ones in purple, and the ones with more modest influence in yellow and blue.
The most influential CEOs – Mark Zuckerberg, Mary Barra and Jamie Dimon – were referenced by a many daily publications like the BBC and the New York Times, alongside more specialised outlets such as the Financial Times and Forbes.
Business Insider featured many CEOs which were otherwise not that central – for example, Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan, who said his bank stands ready to work with Biden, and Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon, who said he’s encouraged by the extraordinary turnout we saw in this election from people of all political persuasions.
But not all execs in the media debate were positive about Biden – Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy wasquoted in The Guardian and The Telegraph for boasting that Newsmax is “one of the only major networks not to call the election,” and for saying that Trump “has been a great president, and we’d like to see him have a second term”.
The centrality of many CEOs could also be attributed to the topics which certain media outlets follow – for example, GM’s Mary Barra was mentioned in the Washington Post and the Financial Times due to these publications’ engagement with climate change.
In fact, climate change was the top-trending topic in the media discussion:
Many outlets for which climate is a focus reported that more than 150 world leaders, including Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford, signed an open letter to Biden to pledge their support to the new administration’s goals to combat climate change.
The open letter also highlighted the potential job growth new climate change mitigation technology will provide. The execs also welcomed the decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord and re-enter the World Health Organisation.
Like Barra, Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess said Biden would better suit the German carmaker’s efforts to mass produce electric cars across the globe. “A Democratic programme would be more aligned with our worldwide strategy to fight climate change to go electric,” Diess said on a Bloomberg webcast.
Some engaged in criticising the Trump administration – Ryan Gellert, CEO of Patagonia, a fashion brand that is famous for its climate activism, said that the Trump administration had a complete disregard for planet and people. His hope for both the Biden administration and the business community is “to build back better — from the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the fracturing of our democracy — we have to put people and the planet first. Nothing else will matter if we don’t have a planet to call home.”
But while CEOs welcomed Biden’s climate plans, many of them were opposed to his views on corporate tax and regulation, warning they will fight moves to raise corporate taxes, tighten regulation and double the federal minimum wage. Tom Donohue, CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce, which has traditionally supported more Republicans, said that the business group’s members would not “give away the store right up front”. Other went a bit further – for example, BRT chief executive Josh Bolten said thatraising corporate taxes would be “a really retrograde step”.
However, execs were more positive about Biden’s approach to trade policy and particularly trade with China, a hot issue during the Trump years. The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai found that among 50 companies with global revenues over $1 billion that it surveyed the week after the U.S. election, 62.9% are more optimistic about doing business in China, and 84.7% of respondents do not think trade restrictions or tariffs will increase. This came as Biden signalled a shift from Trump’s policies and vowed to work with other countries to rewrite the rules of international trade.
CEOs also supported Biden’s Covid response and economic relief plans, which includes provisions like a third round of $1,400 stimulus checks to many taxpayers and their dependents. For example, Michelle Gass, CEO of Kohl’s, told Bloomberg that “anything that puts money into the pockets of our consumers is a good thing”. The Walmart CEO, on the other hand, specifically highlighted the plight of small businesses, which he said would struggle to survive the pandemic without further stimulus.
Others offered help with vaccination – Zuckerberg, for example, gained much of his centrality in the debate for saying that Facebook has been in touch with the incoming Biden administration about how it can help with the Covid response. Zuckerberg said Facebook is planning a “push around authoritative information on vaccines,” which some commentators perceived as a way of getting in Biden’s good books. Meanwhile, Bezos offered Amazon’s operations network and technologies to assist Biden in his vow to get 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations to Americans in his first 100 days in office.
CEOs as brands
It’s fair to say that the way CEOs stepped in to publicly legitimise Biden’s win and to offer their thoughts might signal a new dawn of CEO activism in the political sphere. Until recently, it was rare for corporate leaders to plunge aggressively into political discussions, as CEOs typically dislike few things as much as openly wading into politics. But as new waves of CEO activism get lots of media attention, PR firms are now building entire practices around it.
The recent surge of activism by CEOs is not going to stop in the Biden era, according to Forbes, as the headline-making advocacy of execs has set the stage for a new generation of activist corporate leaders who regard speaking up not just a civic duty but as an important part of their company’s brand and a competitive advantage in a crowded and challenging marketplace.
This comes at a time when people are increasingly turning to business leaders for guidance – according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, more than 80% of those surveyed expect CEOs to speak publicly on societal issues, such as the impact of the pandemic, local concerns and job automation, while business is the only institution deemed ethical and competent by people globally.
Dave Samson, Edelman vice chairman of corporate affairs, said that there is a void in leadership that CEOs must fill: “It starts with a broader mandate for business that focuses societal engagement with the same rigor used to deliver on profits.”
Furthermore, 68% of people believe that CEOs should step in when government leaders do not address societal problems, according to the survey. Similarly, 53% believe that when the news media is absent, corporations have a responsibility to fill the information void. According Edelman, business must embrace its expanded mandate and expectations, with CEOs leading on a range of familiar and unfamiliar issues.
In a way, the high expectations of business leaders to address and solve today’s challenges has never been more apparent. Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said the trend in CEO activism is positive, as business leaders are stepping up in light of the “leadership vacuum coming out of D.C.”
In this regard, measuring and subsequently managing CEO brand image and reputation is essential for CEOs and their companies, especially in the age of social media. Recent research by global PR advisory firm FTI Consulting has shown that fast-growth companies are virtually synonymous with CEOs who prioritise communication – over 80% had a distinct brand. Furthermore, CEOs with a distinct brand better withstood the negative impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
To better understand what is driving CEO brand image and hence corporate reputation, we have launched a free monthly CEO Media Visibility Tracker, which uses advanced AI to measure the media and social media visibility of 150 CEOs of Fortune Global Companies and to identify the business events driving their image in the media.