Marketing & Sales

Should Board Members Take a Stand?

How DAX board members on LinkedIn discuss the war in Ukraine and what International Women’s Day has to do with it

Anna-Karina Schmitz - April 27, 2022

Russia’s attack on Ukraine poses challenges to top managers and their communications. Companies both in and outside of Russia and Ukraine are stuck in the middle, with the war and resultant sanctions affecting the entire economy and worrying shareholders and customers alike. Top managers of listed companies operate in an area of tension between the interests of various stakeholders, and their communications are often the focus of public perception. Expectations are high—and the higher they get, the harder we fall.

- Expert opinion -

Socio-political activism can have a negative impact on company value. Studies show that public statements made by CEOs on political, environmental, or social issues can influence public opinion and customer behavior both positively and negatively. Share prices, for example, are particularly sensitive to such statements. For these reasons, taking a stand often means taking a risk. From a company’s perspective, the costs of doing so could be significantly higher than any potential benefits.

Top managers play a rather demanding dual role. Not only do they speak for their companies, but they also speak for themselves. The general atmosphere across various social media platforms has been heated. There are demands for business leaders to take a clear stance on the matter, and conducting business as usual feels tone-deaf. Employees, customers, and other stakeholders increasingly expect top managers to act as role models and provide moral guidance, i.e., to make use of their reach and level of influence.

This then begs the question: How do top managers navigate this tension when communicating with the public regarding the war in Ukraine? To find answers, I analyzed the communications posted on LinkedIn by board members active at DAX-listed companies. As previous studies have often been limited only to CEOs, I made it a point to look at all board members of these companies, seeking to paint as broad a picture as possible.

In an effort to not bury the lede, I can confirm that a certain ambivalence toward confronting the war is evident among board members on LinkedIn. Striking a balance between clear positioning and “business as usual” seems to be difficult.

But before we continue, let us take stock of some basic facts. Board members are highly represented on LinkedIn, an important channel for communication. In fact, of the 247 DAX-40 board members, 185 (i.e., just under 75%) have a publicly accessible profile. The figure is somewhat lower if we only consider the 41 CEOs, 29 of whom (71%) have a corresponding LinkedIn profile.

On average, nine posts were published on the profiles within the total three months considered; if we consider only the CEOs, there were 16 posts. A CEO on LinkedIn has an average of 40,452 followers; other board members have an average of 4,392 followers, i.e., just over one tenth of that previous number.

A total of 48 board members published posts on Ukraine within the first three weeks of the war, with 31 having published a singular post and 17 having published multiple. This represents 32% of all board members active on LinkedIn. If we look only at CEOs, the rate is much higher: Of all CEOs with active profiles, 19 of them (70%) have posted their own statement. Another 47 board members (i.e., roughly another third of the total) did not publish their own post(s), instead interacting with third parties relevant to Ukraine. This means that the remaining 55 board members (37%) have kept a complete distance from this topic on LinkedIn; even official statements from their own company (if any) have not been shared or liked.

An evaluation of the posts both shows the spectrum of content and gives an indication of the clarity of one’s own position. Half of the board members spoke in the first person in their posts; the other half used “we,” potentially increasing the distance between the post and their own person.

How do they talk about the war? The majority of top managers clearly named the unrest as a “war” (20) or “invasion” or “attack” (12). A third of the board members spoke rather vaguely of a “situation” or an “event” (6), a “crisis” (3), or avoided naming the situation altogether (7). Noticeably, only ten managers explicitly named Russia as the aggressor.

A similar picture emerges regarding their own expressions of emotion. These were negative in the case of 24 board members (the terms “grief,” “concern,” “shock,” and “consternation” dominated here); and positive in seven cases (in the sense of pride in the humanitarian commitment of their employees or company). Sixteen of the managers did not express any of their own feelings in their posts.

The majority of posts include expressions of solidarity (81%) and focus on humanitarian aid (73%). More sensitive topics are addressed much less frequently. For example, the topic of sanctions was only addressed by four board members, and the Russian attack was explicitly condemned by only five top managers.

Apart from offers of humanitarian aid, the level of activism appears to be low, and most board members tend to show restraint. Differences in communication behavior can certainly also be attributed to a varying degree of direct involvement, e.g., due to business ties between the companies represented and Russia.

A general reticence regarding political or social topics cannot be observed on LinkedIn. International Women’s Day on March 8 offers impressive proof of this. A significantly larger number of managers published clear posts and/or photos with crossed arms under hashtag #BreakTheBias as a show of solidarity. This topic, undeniably important, is also noticeably more palatable and thus less risky.

This is understandable insofar as comments on the Ukraine war certainly presuppose a high tolerance for frustration and can be abrasive. Alongside any positive reactions come the demands, fierce criticism, and hostility, all of which could spark a media firestorm. It is also not uncommon for such comments to appear in numerous other articles that cover completely different topics, meaning that not even a “business as usual” approach would necessarily render managers immune to becoming the target of public criticism.

Regardless, the high number of comments, both positive and negative, evince that professional communication is more important than ever for top managers on LinkedIn. In a time characterized by uncertainty and numerous crises, and that simultaneously enables faster and more direct communication, managers will have to speak out more and position themselves more clearly in the future. This means weighing up key issues and balancing the requirements of different stakeholders without then losing oneself in the process. Many board members are already doing an excellent job at this: They enter the discourse, engage in active community management, and maintain continuous and detailed communication. In the end, as proven by the case of International Women’s Day, such actions make a valuable contribution—and not only to their company.

Literature reference and methodology

The study considers active LinkedIn profiles to be those on which at least one post was published between mid-December 2021 to mid-March 2022 and other engagement (e.g., comments and likes) was apparent as of the start of the war on February 24, 2022. This is true for 65% of the profiles considered.

Author

Assistant Professor Anna-Karina Schmitz

Anna-Karina Schmitz holds the Henkel Assistant Professorship for Marketing at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. Her research focuses on brand and price management, as well as sustainability and social justice. She is particularly interested in the contribution marketing can make toward solving today’s social challenges.

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