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Research Insight | CEO Versus Brand Communications in Times of Crisis: What Has More Impact?

Brands are increasingly expected to acknowledge pressing social and political issues, and doing so requires great care and sensitivity in communications. During massively consequential world events (e.g., the Russia–Ukraine war), what has more influence: official brand messages or personal messages from a brand’s CEO? This research reveals key insights into the impact of CEO communication during global crises, showing that CEO communications—particularly those that blend personal perspectives with factual or emotional content—are more effective in driving public engagement and activism than standard brand messages. This suggests CEOs’ significant influence in shaping public opinion and action, especially during geopolitical events. The findings can help firms strategically leverage CEO voices for impactful messaging and digital campaigns in sensitive geopolitical situations.

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What You Need to Know

  • CEO communications on social media during global crises have a greater impact on public engagement and digital activism than brand messages.
  • The effectiveness of these communications is enhanced when CEOs blend personal insights with factual or emotional content, highlighting the importance of the sender and of strategic message framing in crisis communication.
 

Abstract

This research examines the influence of CEO versus brand communication on public engagement and digital activism during the Russia–Ukraine war. Brand communication refers to messages sent out through an organization’s social media accounts, whereas CEO communication comes from the executive’s personal account. The authors depart from an analysis of 236,119 tweets investigating the effects of message sender (CEO vs. brand), message framing (self vs. other), and message appeal (informational vs. emotional) on engagement (i.e., likes, retweets, and replies). To further understand, they subsequently deploy a 2 × 2 between-subjects design (N = 608) that introduces scenarios where either a CEO or brand proposes a public policy campaign, advocating support for U.S. citizens (self framing) or Ukrainian civilians (other framing). Key findings reveal that CEO communications foster greater engagement and digital activism than brand messages. CEO communication that merges self framed with informational appeals or other framed with emotional appeals outperforms brand messages regarding public engagement. In addition, CEO campaigns centered on Ukrainian civilians amplify digital activism, mirroring findings when brands approach the war’s implications for U.S. citizens. Together, these insights unveil the intricate dance of message sender, framing, and appeal during global geopolitical events, providing vital knowledge for organizations and policy makers aiming to optimize public backing in times of war.