In a column for Arabian Business earlier this year, Sunil John, ASDA’A BCW’s President, Middle East, posited that ‘2019 is the year of the socially conscious CEO’. While leaders have long avoided rocking the boat, he argued that in today’s climate, taking a stand is not a ‘nice to do’ but rather ‘a must-do’.

Sunil John, ASDA’A BCW President – Middle East

This was the topic up for debate during the opening panel at the 2nd In2 Innovation Summit MENA: Should CEOs, and the companies and brands they represent, take a stand on policy making and political issues?

Joining Sunil for the discussion on February 13 were Heba Fatani, Executive Director of RAK Media Office, Maaz Sheikh, CEO and Founder of Starz Play Arabia, and Nicole Hayde, Senior Director of Corporate Relations for Visa MENA.

Here are our five key takeaways from the panel.

The In2SummitMENA panel

A CEO’s ultimate responsibility is to the business

Both Maaz and Heba likened a leadership role to taking an oath to preserve the best interests of your company. “If you speak out on an issue you personally feel strongly about, but your employees and shareholders are not aligned with it, you might end up alienating someone,” warned Heba.

Maaz added: “Sometimes you have to set aside your personal beliefs and make the bigger interests of your shareholders, employees and customers a higher priority.”

Maaz Sheikh, CEO and Founder, STARZ PLAY Arabia

However, CEOs that do take a stand can reap rewards when their values connect strongly with their audience

“Consumers are drawn to companies that are authentic and work hard at amplifying the things they stand for,” said Nicole. Sunil cited the example of Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad campaign, a controversial move in a divisive political climate that ultimately paid off enormously.

In an era of #fakenews, more people are looking to CEOs for the truth

“Consumers are pivoting towards corporates for good governance and looking to CEOs to take more of a lead on providing trustworthy information,” Nicole said.

Nicole Hayde, Senior Director – Corporate Communications, MENA & SSA , Visa

Authenticity is key

It’s not enough to pay lip service -–you have to live your values. “When your core values are genuine and aligned with shared, human values that no one can dispute, your employees will feel proud to be associated with you,” said Heba, noting how the UAE government has made its core value of tolerance actionable, through its Year of Tolerance, the appointment of a Minister of Tolerance, and even the recent visit to the emirate by Pope Francis.

Heba Fatani, Executive Director, RAK Media Office

CEOs that want to engage on social media need to know what they’re signing up for

While social media can make CEOs appear more relatable and make communications feel more genuine, the ‘echo chamber’ will amplify your message, and the internet will preserve it forever. The best advice? According to Heba: “Take your time. See how things develop before you comment. Know when (and when not to) engage. And don’t be an angry tweeter.”

Ultimately, the conclusion was that, done correctly, CEO activism can reap real quantifiable rewards and create authentic connections, as long as it’s done responsibly (Maaz), with passion (Heba), and with relevance (Nicole). As long as it’s done right, it’s worth the potential risk.

Choose an issue or a cause that matters to you, your business and your shareholders and go after it with sincere passion – make it matter.

As Sunil concluded, “Taking a brave stand needs heart. Not every brand can do it.”