An extraordinary thing happened last week. Top executives at more than 100 companies—including household names like American Airlines, Starbucks, Target and LinkedIn—gathered on a Zoom call to chat about activism.
Specifically, the executives discussed how to oppose state bills that restrict voting rights like the one passed in Georgia earlier this year. They talked about withholding contributions from politicians who support these bills and limiting investments in states where they pass.
The meeting is the latest evidence that big brands will no longer stay quiet on social issues. Corporate activism has gone mainstream, with companies pushing past government affairs work that serves their business to weigh in on issues like gun control, race relations and LGBTQ rights.
Yet there are some big differences—some might say an escalation—in this case: companies are now targeting specific legislation across the country and enacting punitive measures in response. They are no longer just speaking out. They are discussing and sometimes taking meaningful action.
Corporate Activism is Escalating
Corporate activism has always been a part of the political landscape, with companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia baking it right into their business models. In recent years, activism grew case by case. Walmart stopped selling certain guns and ammunition. CVS stopped selling tobacco products. Airbnb and Target supported the LGBTQ community. Nike supported Colin Kaepernick.
The trend gained momentum in the last 18 months. In late 2019, a group of almost 150 CEOs wrote a letter to Congress demanding action on gun control. In 2020, scores of companies supported the Black Lives Matter movement after tens of millions of Americans joined protests over racial inequality.
That escalation continues this year. After the January riot in the U.S. Capitol, a group of well-known companies and trade associations decided to withhold PAC contributions from federal lawmakers who challenged the results in the presidential election.
Voting Rights: An Issue That Unites
Now, state bills that address voting rights are becoming a galvanizing force. Many say that these bills, often drafted by Republicans, are designed to keep Black Americans and other minority voters from going to the polls. In Georgia, some companies and organizations have already taken action.
Major League Baseball moved this year’s All-Star Game out of Georgia citing the voting rights bill. “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in a statement. Interestingly, a National Football League team owner was on last week’s Zoom call to discuss voting rights bills.
Actor Will Smith and Director Antoine Fuqua relocated the filming of their movie “Emancipation” because of the state’s voting law. “We cannot in good conscience provide economic support to a government that enacts regressive voting laws that are designed to restrict voter access,” they said in a joint statement.
Moving forward, the trend could make things awkward between companies and organizations that oppose these bills and Republicans who support them. Former President Donald Trump has called for a boycott of companies that opposed the Georgia law, including Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Citigroup and UPS. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said companies should, “stay out of politics.”
Of course, the opposite seems to be happening. Many companies are getting more involved in politics, whether they are active on issues or registering and educating voters during election time.
Should Your Organization Speak Up?
For government relations professionals, all of this begs a natural question: Should your company or organization speak out on social issues?
“Companies need to understand that expectations of business are changing from society, consumers, employees, and investors,” wrote Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth College, in Harvard Business Review. “Even if they have not yet been confronted with a decision to speak out on a potentially controversial topic, they will likely find themselves needing to make this decision in the future.”
Because deciding when and how is never easy, Argenti developed a framework that uses three essential questions: 1) Does the issue align with your company’s strategy? 2) Can you meaningfully influence the issue? and 3) Will your constituencies agree with speaking out? How your organization answers those questions can determine a course of action (Argenti even has a chart).
Often, however, companies have to make these decisions under crisis conditions. Rapidly developing situations that demand quick response can be a recipe for problems—unless your company is prepared. Here are some things you can do:
- Create a Team. Argenti suggests creating a “forecasting team” to research and monitor issues that may impact your company. This team can and should extend beyond government relations. “The team should include representatives from your marketing, communications, strategy, and legal (usually compliance) departments, as well as someone from the C-suite,” Argenti wrote.
- Create a Playbook. Argenti suggests: “Use a communication strategy framework to guide your thinking here: Who are your key constituencies? What do you want them to do/think/understand about the issue? What do they need to know? How can you measure success? Then develop a detailed game plan for when you need to mobilize quickly. Decide in advance who needs to be part of the decision-making process.”
- Embrace Professional Tools. The standard tools for government relations can have great impact here. Professional legislative tracking and issue monitoring software—with alerts—can ensure your team is on top of developments. Professional advocacy software ensures you can respond quickly with grassroots action, adding heft to corporate communications.
Companies that consider their issues and create a response plan in advance will always fare better than those that have to develop a strategy on the fly.
As Argenti wrote, “The philosopher Plato may offer the best advice for companies looking beyond the business case for speaking out: ‘Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.’”
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