CEOs should take a stand on relevant social issues but authenticity is key

ASDA'A BCW Middle East president Sunil John argues that by taking a stand on relevant social issues that matter, CEOs can build empathy with consumers.

ASDA’A BCW Middle East president Sunil John.
ASDA’A BCW Middle East president Sunil John.

If ever an industry was to have earned a reputation for conservatism and playing it safe when it comes to communications, it would be oil and gas. That goes double for the oil giants in the Middle East, whose operations are tied so inextricably with the economies and governments of the countries in which they operate.

So, it came as a complete surprise to me that one of the few articulate corporate voices to emerge after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the subsequent boycott of Saudi Arabia’s flagship Future Investment Initiative by dozens of international companies in October last year, was that of Amin Nasser, the CEO of Saudi Aramco.

He appeared live on CNN to express his regret over the killing, and to say that he believed the Kingdom was fully aware of the gravitas of the situation, and was investigating the case.

It struck me that this single appearance has changed the communications landscape in the Middle East, where most business leaders suffer from ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and are afraid to speak out in fear of being cut down to size by peers or, more likely, governments. Here was a businessman unafraid to speak out on an issue on everyone’s lips, but which every regional CEO wanted to avoid at all costs.

It sparked an article I wrote at the beginning of the year, where I argued that, in this day and age, CEOs in the Middle East have a duty to stick their heads above the parapet, and a subsequent industry panel session I hosted on this issue: Should CEOs, and the companies and brands they represent, take a stand on policy making and political issues?

Ultimately, the panel, comprising CEOs and communications professionals from government and multinationals based in the region, agreed that now is the time to take a stand – but with some caveats.

CEOs that do take a stand can reap rewards when their values connect strongly with their audience. Ultimately, though, a CEO’s responsibility is to the business, and the risk-reward strategy needs to be properly ascertained, especially in a region where social issues and politics are frequently indistinguishable, and governments can exercise significant power over the business world.

CEOs that want to engage on social media need to know what they’re signing up for. Where once a public-facing CEO would act through a spokesperson, today’s outspoken executives have direct access to stakeholders through social media. There’s no filter, and once released, the genies aren’t going back into the bottle.

In an era of #fakenews, more people are looking to CEOs. Brands aspire to foster trust; today’s CEOs are more and more expected to embody their organisation’s brand values, and, when a trusted connection is made, then these CEOs have a responsibility to act in the interest of consumers to maintain that trust, even in areas not totally related to the business.  

And, related to that, the panel agreed that authenticity is key. I would even take that a step further: I firmly believe that authenticity will be the new measure of successful communications.

As PR practitioners it is our job to work with CEOs to ensure they emphasise the truth, broadcast the facts and present an image of unimpeachable honesty. We need to make the CEO more human, more authentic and more transparent – that will be the new measure of effective communications.

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