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Why business leaders should take an active role in preserving democracy

At Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, execs from Edelman, the Leadership Now Project, and Seventh Generation discussed how leaders should weigh in on thorny social issues.

Why business leaders should take an active role in preserving democracy
From left: Jay Woodruff, Senior Editor, Fast Company, Daniella Ballou-Aares, Cofounder and CEO, Leadership Now Project, and Richard Edelman, CEO, Edelman, Ashley Orgain, Chief Impact Officer, Seventh Generation. [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

Trust in various institutions has shifted over the past several years, said PR giant Edelman’s CEO Richard Edelman. While NGOs were the most trusted institution for almost two decades, Edelman’s yearly Trust Barometer survey shows that respondents now place the greatest amount of trust in business—over NGOs, government, and media.

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“Business actually did very well during the pandemic,” said Edelman, who shared the stage at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on Thursday with Daniella Ballou-Aares, CEO of the Leadership Now Project, and Ashley Orgain, chief impact officer of Seventh Generation.

Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
During their session, the three panelists discussed the pressures that CEOs face these days to take a stand on various relevant social issues, including abortion, racial equity, sustainability, and geopolitical tensions, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While there is a risk to ostracizing consumers in certain cases, there’s also a risk to not speaking up on topics that are important to your consumer and employee base.

Trust is earned by action, said Edelman. “Trust is four things: ability, dependability, integrity, and purpose,” he said. “You have to do something. you can’t just talk about it.”

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Ashley Orgain, chief impact officer of Seventh Generation [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
Seventh Generation has seen a benefit to speaking out on sustainability and conservation, said Orgain. “We know that consumers are 20% more loyal when they know that Seventh Generation has a mission, that we follow through on the things that we say we care about, and not just by speaking out and acting on them, but by embedding it into our business.”

During the session, the panelists also emphasized the important role business leaders can play in bolstering democratic processes. “I don’t think it’s sustainable over time to have media and government be so low and NGOs and business be so high,” said Edelman. “It’s like a table with four legs and it tilts … and the plates fall off the table.”

Daniella Ballou-Aares, CEO of the Leadership Now Project [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
Ballou-Aares, who is CEO of the Leadership Now Project, a membership organization of leaders working to “protect and renew American democracy,” agreed. “You need all of those elements of society to be functional,” she said. “The next two years are really risky. One-third of Americans don’t believe in our election results and that could lead to violence. We can all play a role in lowering the temperature.”

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At a certain level, it’s about managing risk, said Ballou-Aares. “If there’s a 2024 election crisis [and I’m a CEO], what would that mean for consumers, my company, et cetera?” she said. “You’re not going to please everyone all the time but [must] look at what creates stability in the system.”

She encouraged support of the bipartisan Electoral Count Act, a version of which passed yesterday in the House of Representatives. “To create a great, dynamic political system is actually a lot about innovation. America was an innovation, as it sought to be a country that would be no longer under a monarchy, and so I invite all of us to think about how to innovate.”

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About the author

Julia Herbst is a senior editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously she worked as a writer and editor at Los Angeles magazine and BREAKER magazine

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