The prevailing wisdom in recent years has been that Americans support companies that speak up for their values and that the private sector stands in a unique position to address some of the world’s most pressing social, environmental and political problems. For business leaders, staying silent on an important social issue may come with the same peril of committing oneself to an unpopular cause.

But all that may be changing, according to the latest Global Communications Report conducted by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations.

The annual report, which focuses on trends in the global communications landscape, surveyed PR pros, investors, employees of large companies and the general public on what role purpose plays in companies’ reputations. Bucking what has been an overarching trend, this year’s report captured a significant pullback in the outsized expectation stakeholders have traditionally had for companies to engage on social issues in our polarized political climate.

USC Annenberg’s 2024 Global Communication Report, “The Balancing Act”

According to the report, while most PR professionals, business leaders, employees and consumers today still believe that companies have a responsibility to address our most pressing social issues, the percentage of all of them has decreased markedly since last year, suggesting that a broader cultural shift away from purpose may be underfoot.

For example, 85 percent of PR pros said they think companies have a responsibility to address social issues, compared to 89 percent last year. Similarly, 64 percent of employees believe employees have a responsibility to tackle social issues, a seven percent slip when compared to 71 percent last year. 61 percent of consumers now think believe employees have a responsibility to address social issues, down eight percentage points from 69 percent last year.

In fact, among all parties surveyed, the only group to reveal an uptick in corporate social responsibility interest was investors, 96 percent of whom said they think companies have a responsibility to address social issues, an increase of seven percentage points from 89 percent last year.

The report also discovered that ESG reporting and tracking may be decreasing. Fewer than half of the PR pros surveyed (46 percent) said they would be investing more in ESG in the next five years, which accounts for an astonishing 42 percent drop from last year’s survey (when 79 percent said they planned to boot ESG investment). Fewer than a third (29 percent) of PR pros polled similarly reported that they planned to increase their level of investment in tracking and reporting in ESG during the 2024 section cycle.

Aside from an almost universal desire to dial back on ESG initiatives, there appears to be a major disconnect among all parties—business leaders, communicators, investors and consumers—when it comes to what social issues are important and which issues the private sector should speak up about. While business leaders and consumers both agree that “the economy” is the most important issue worth tackling, they appear to be misaligned on just about everything else.

For example, communications pros believe companies should take a lead on climate change and sustainability (72 percent); diversity, equity and inclusion (67 percent); and misinformation and disinformation (65 percent); but should try to avoid engaging on other topics such as immigration, gun violence and union workers’ rights.

Investors, on the other hand, want companies to speak out on DEI (57 percent), the economy (57 percent) and the usage of generative AI (48 percent). And consumers said they feel companies should play a larger role when speaking up on mental health (64 percent), the economy (53 percent) and race and racism (52 percent).

But that’s not how business leaders see it. According to the report, business leaders think the private sector is best equipped to lead on the economy (62 percent), DEI (53 percent) and misinformation (47 percent). Similarly, when asked what topics they believe they’re personally most comfortable discussing, business leaders said they’d prefer taking the reins on issues related to the economy (82 percent), mental health (71 percent) and misinformation (70 percent).

Despite these findings, the report still suggests—as countless reports have in recent years—that consumers are motivated to action when companies take a stand on issues that align with their values. According to the report, nearly half (49 percent) of consumers surveyed said they’d recommend a value-aligned company’s product or service to a friend, family member or colleague; 44 percent said they’d purchase more from the company; 37 percent said they’d share a positive review; 33 percent said they’d defend the company and 23 percent said they’d engage with the company on social media.

But if the report is any indication, the perils of not engaging with a social issue hardly amount to a death blow to a company’s reputation. When consumers were asked what actions they would take if they found themselves disagreeing with a company’s position on a certain issue, only 13 percent said they’d boycott the company, only nine percent said they’d leave a negative rating or review and only percent said they’d send a letter to the company expressing their disproval.

When business leaders were asked what factors would ultimately prevent their company from speaking out on a social issue, alienating customers came out on top (53 percent), followed by alienating employees (43 percent), exposing the company to reputational risk (37 percent), alienating investors (35 percent) and inviting activist attacks (30 percent).

Finally, while many Americans have long believed our country is headed in the wrong direction, the USC report found that, surprisingly, communications professionals ranked among the most pessimistic of the bunch. According to the report, only 16 percent of the pros PR surveyed said they think the country is on the right track, a lower percentage than business leaders, investors and employees. On the other hand, PR pros were more likely than all other parties—aside from investors—to say they believe the economy is moving in the right direction.

USC Annenberg’s 2024 Global Communication Report, “The Balancing Act,” surveyed more than 2,500 PR pros, investors, business leaders, employees and consumers. Surveys were conducted online between February and March. The report was produced by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, in conjunction with Myriant by United Minds.