REI's Alex Thompson: Embrace activism only for right reasons

The retailer's VP of public affairs warned that executives shouldn't rush to embrace an activist mindset.

REI's Alex Thompson. (Screenshot from REi's video on YouTube "Behind the Scenes of REI's #OptOutside).
REI's Alex Thompson. (Screenshot from REi's video on YouTube "Behind the Scenes of REI's #OptOutside).

NEW YORK: Being an activist CEO isn’t for everyone.

Persuading the chief executive of every company to be an "activist" has enormous risks, such as potentially hurting a company’s value, layoffs, or even driving employees away, Alex Thompson, VP of public affairs at REI, said at the PR Council’s Critical Issues Forum.

REI’s own CEO, Jerry Stritzke, sent a shockwave through the media and the retail industry last November when he made the decision to close REI’s doors on Black Friday so its 12,000 employees could enjoy a paid post-Thanksgiving vacation day. The cooperative invited the nation to join in by choosing to #OptOutside, or enjoy the outdoors instead of shopping, to reconnect with family and friends.

However, Thompson said he doesn’t consider REI’s decision a form of "activism."

"Activism is an interesting word because you don’t often say, ‘I’m an activist on a Wednesday and a Saturday,’" he said. "If you meet an activist, it is a state of being that is constant, and the word infers a constant state of behavior."

Thompson added that CEO activism is enormously risky if done for the wrong reasons. He noted that the top 2,000 organizations in the world account for $35 trillion of revenue annually, half the global GDP.

"It puts jobs at risk, and we should be cautious about that as an industry," he said.

When speaking out on hot-button issues, a CEO’s reasoning must be clear and should tie to the company’s core business.

"As counselors to CEOs, we need to help them understand why they want to take a particular move on a particular issue and be strong in that counsel and not be drawn to the light like moths," said Thompson.

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