Survey from Center for Public Relations and ‘Chief Executive’ magazine finds CEOs want to talk sales, not social issues, in 2019

America’s CEOs may feel more pressure than ever to speak out on social issues from gun control to immigration, but ask them what they think the business of corporate communications should be and the answer is overwhelming: business

According to a new survey conducted by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations in conjunction with Chief Executive magazine, 44% of CEO respondents said their most important communication goal for 2019 is to sell their products and services, while 39% say their primary goal is to differentiate their company’s brand from the competition. 

When asked which societal issue they planned on speaking publicly about, 60% of the 210 CEOs surveyed said they were unlikely to communicate about any social issue in 2019. However, about one-third of the CEOs are actively planning to speak out this year. For this group, the most pressing topics are data privacy (18%), healthcare (17%) and diversity and inclusion (11%). More controversial issues ranked much lower, such as immigration (6%) and “fake news” (5%).

The CEO survey is part of USC Annenberg’s annual report on the public relations industry. Communication professionals can take the online survey now through February 8 at annenberg.usc.edu/cprsurvey19

“At a time when high-profile corporations like Nike and Levi Strauss are speaking out about societal issues, it’s fascinating to see that the majority of CEOs have little interest in being part of that conversation,” said Fred Cook, director of the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations. “Most of them are more interested in using their communications channels to sell their products and build their brands.”

The channels for delivering information are also changing. Asked what communications strategies would be most valuable to their companies in the future, social media and online influencers were chosen by 30% of the CEOs, slightly ahead of original content distributed through their company’s channels (owned media) at 28%. Traditional media coverage ranked third at 11%, while only 9% said advertising was their most valuable means of communication. 

As further proof that technology has become a critical component of corporate communications, more than half of CEOs surveyed rate their company’s use of the latest communications technology to enhance their effectiveness as excellent or good, with 46% admitting to average or below. Asked what aspects of their communications they would like to advance through future technology, the vast majority stuck with tangible business goals. One-third of the CEOs chose customer experience optimization, followed by measurement of results and audience targeting — both at 22%. Less clear-cut activities like reputation tracking, trend prediction and crisis management were chosen by fewer than 10% of the respondents. 

“It’s clear that communications has become a critical discipline for today’s CEOs,” said Cook. “They view new tools and technology as valuable investments in achieving their future business goals.”


For more information contact: Ron Antonette, Chief Program Officer, USC Center for Public Relations, (213) 740-3864 or ron.antonette@usc.edu.