After years of relative detachment – who can forget Google’s ringing pronouncement: “Don’t be evil”? – U.S. technology and media companies have suddenly gone very public on divisive social matters. Two of those issues – abortion and gun control – have until recently been considered so hot-button as to be untouchable.
No more, apparently. What’s changed?
Salesforce isn’t the only e-commerce provider who’s saying “no” to facilitating the sale of rapid-firing weaponry. Shopify, which powers more than 800,000 online shopping sites, amended its acceptable-use policy last year to bar customers from using its technology to market automatic and semiautomatic firearms.
The abortion debate playing out in Atlanta, Jefferson City, Montgomery, and other southern state capitals is also stirring corporate resistance in ways that might have been considered radical a few years ago. For example, Netflix, which has invested huge sums in Georgia, is vowing to “rethink” its presence if the state fails to overturn a restrictive abortion law – a move that may well be emulated by other big entertainment providers, among them AMC, NBCUniversal, Disney, and WarnerMedia.
Is this new-found corporate activism here to stay? And is it really that big a leap from traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR)?
The answers, respectively, are “Yes, probably,” and “Yes, definitely.” CSR has historically revolved around mainstream community philanthropy – not hotly contested social issues. This new trend is an abrupt departure from previous corporate brand positioning.
Both abortion rights and a desire to impose gun control have experienced profound upticks in grassroots support in recent years. A strong majority of Americans – in some polls as much as three-quarters of the electorate – do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned or a woman’s right to reproductive choice undermined. The extreme efforts to outlaw abortion – even in instances of rape or incest – in the Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri legislatures have impelled many Americans to action, including millions of consumers who rely on tech and entertainment products and want to see their providers champion women’s health.
The same holds true on gun control. The mass shootings that plague our society have persuaded most Americans – more than two-third in many polls – that gun laws need to be strengthened and the corporate gun lobby weakened. Frustrated by the federal government’s paralysis, tech companies have begun to follow the lead of Dick’s Sporting Goods, which curbed its gun sales two years ago, and Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Hertz, which have ended their corporate partnerships with the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Why has the milieu changed so much? Why are so many corporate stakeholders insisting that companies take a public stand?
“We are living in a time of extraordinary political intensity,” maintains Ira Shapiro, a longtime public policy exponent and the author of Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country? “Corporations are discovering the timeless wisdom of Dante: ‘The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, remain neutral.’”
Today’s federal government appears inept and inconstant – a far cry from its vaunted role during FDR’s New Deal and the decades that followed. Corporate leaders today recognize there is both risk and reward in jumping into the void left by an absentee government.
Ironically, the vociferous criticism that the Internet has unleashed is also empowering many company executives. If you’re going to be criticized for doing nothing, the thinking goes, you might as well risk offending a definable audience and stand for something. It might be smart business, it might be personal, or it might be being authentic. Whatever it may be, it’s brand extension – with the brand standing for something more than a product or a service.
Companies are betting that they get the calculus right, thereby earning the admiration of more customers, employees, and influencers over time, less the lost customers. When the first grape boycott occurred to support farmworkers in 1965, it was news for years. Today, there are daily calls for boycotts from influencers, newscasters, even the president of the United States. Consumers are now boycotting boycotts, further emboldening company executives.
Polonius’ declaration in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true,” is increasingly a marketing strategy. A recent study of the “new humanity” in global corporate engagement trends posits that the “value of purpose beyond profit remains high. However, stakeholders are increasingly seeking a tangible experience of that sense of purpose. . . It’s not enough for stakeholders to hear about a sense of purpose. They need to feel the difference.”
At their essence, women’s reproductive health and gun control are emotional issues. People want the institutions and brands on which they rely to feel that emotion, too. Neither issue is “50-50” or “40-40-20” anymore. Both command strong majorities who are demanding action. How ironic that as politics is increasingly driven by the fringes, business finds security in super majorities.
Does all this mean that, overnight, tech and media companies are going to become champions of every contentious social issue out there? No, they’ll have to pick and choose carefully – and in most instances wait for a majority consensus to coalesce before acting. In some ways, what we’re witnessing is well-timed followship.
Here are my recommendations on the key considerations that should animate socially aware companies.
Authenticity: Despite our highly critical society, customers and shareholders will forgive a different point of view if they think it’s authentic. Whether it’s the left accepting Dan Cathay’s anti-LGBTQ stance for religious reasons or the right forgiving Edward Stack of Dick’s Sporting Goods for his anti-rifle views. It’s not that there weren’t boycott calls and angry customers. But the companies have grown, despite setbacks; audiences appreciate heartfelt beliefs even if they aren’t their own.
Transparency: Authenticity’s first cousin is transparency. Once you take a position, overcommunicate. Dick’s position was unanimously approved by its board and approved by all management groups. It didn’t happen overnight, but it was viewed as the right thing to do, even if it exacted a cost.
Sacrifice: You cannot make what you view as an ethical decision based on profit alone. But as a fiduciary, it must be part of the decision-making. What business line are you willing to sacrifice? Dick’s knew they needed to replace gun sales with something else. And they knew they would be hurt for a quarter or more but were willing to make the sacrifice. When Cheerios went GMO-free, jumping into the anxiety about Genetically Modified Organisms, it seemed like the opposite. There are no GMO oats.
Consistency of Values: When the federal government threatened to open Zion and other national parks to commercial development, Patagonia took a stand. As an outdoor company, its position was consistent with its market purpose and company values.
Materiality: Airbnb’s opposition to the Brexit plan was viewed as material to its business interest. There is minimal risk to a company taking positions on matters that affect its bottom line. The challenge is to not do it too often, or too openly, if it is perceived as self-interest.
Selectivity: Make the news for your company’s political positions rarely. Once you take a political position you can no longer get a pass by arguing that future political sticky wickets are off-limits.
When WeWork announced it was going meat-free for its employees, it struck some critics as high-handed and judgmental. Regardless of what you eat, how is your employer dictating this to you? A few months later, when Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis, a significant investor in SoftBank, which holds a substantial ownership interest in WeWork, WeWork went silent. The relationship, of course, is more complicated than that – and WeWork did not take money from SoftBank’s Saudi-funded Vision Fund during its second round of investment. But it found itself in the awkward position of boasting about forced employee vegetarianism, yet silent on a murder at the hands of one of its initial primary funders. No one would have expected comment on the late Jamal Khashoggi if they hadn’t recently taken such a bold position on meat.
Whatever you do, you must express it with sincerity, transparency and consistency with your corporate values.
Leadership: Leadership is a quality hard to define, but, as the Supreme Court defined obscenity, we know it when we see it. At its best, leadership exudes courage because it stands on values.
If we don’t stand for our values, what are values worth?