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Lo-res_TW659C-SNeutrality is no longer a feasible or desirable strategic choice when it comes to corporations taking a stance—or not—on some of the most pressing social issues of the day. Customers and employees, especially those in Gen Z or younger, do not interpret silence as a signal of a company’s detachment or objectivity. Rather, keeping quiet and refusing to take a side makes a statement of its own, and usually not a positive or appealing one to target markets.

But how can companies find a balance between speaking up about voting rights, LGBTQ protection, police violence, climate change, and other politically divisive topics without scaring off investors, who may tend to be more conservative in their business practices, if not their politics? One option appears to be to join forces, at least when it comes to communicating their stances.

High-profile chief executives have written, signed, and posted seemingly thousands of letters, sharing their views and explanations of their company’s positions with interested members of the consumer public. Embracing the safety and power provided by the crowd, they even issue some joint statements. For example, a former chief executive of American Express and the CEO of Merck organized an initiative to take a broad stand against “any discriminatory legislation” that made it harder for U.S. citizens to vote. The statement was signed by hundreds of companies and CEOs, including Amazon, General Motors, Google, Netflix, Starbucks, and Warren Buffett.

Despite the signers insisting that their statement was intended to be non-political, or at least non-partisan, that’s not how it was taken by Republicans, some of whom accused corporations of siding with Democrats. Former president Donald Trump called for a boycott of companies that signed the letter, or otherwise came out against the voting restrictions. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said corporations should stay out of politics.

Some of them are trying. Noting the politically fraught discussion, and an apparent inability to keep everyone happy, many familiar brand names explicitly did not appear at the bottom of the statement. Yet even abstaining from signing the statement was not sufficient for some parties, seeking to politicize the situation further. For example, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) “slammed” the Georgia-based companies Coca-Cola and Delta for coming out against that state’s proposed voting restrictions, calling them “woke corporate hypocrites.” Neither company had signed the group statement. Instead, they issued their own denouncements of Georgia’s voting restrictions, largely in response to pressure from voting rights activists.

The result of all this talk? Some limited boycotts have arisen among consumers who disagree with a company’s stated political stance (or, perhaps more accurately, the stance the companies are alleged or perceived to be taking). Such actions also have prompted some counter-boycotts, such that consumers who agree with a position the company has stated, or is believed to hold, make additional purchases to signal their support.

The current reams of statements may not be how activism is done in the future. Continued research and consumer choices will reveal if the public letters are good or bad for business, and those outcomes are likely to be the ultimate determinants of companies’ political behavior. At the same time, increasingly politically engaged consumers and employees may start seeking something more from companies than words on paper: real accountability.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why has using open letters become so popular with companies as a form of activism?
  2. Are companies’ political stances important to you as a consumer? What about as an employee?
  3. Do you think that a company remaining silent on political and social issues means that it is neutral?
  4. How do you anticipate that corporate activism will change in the future?

Corinne Purtill, “How Public Letters Became Companies’ Favorite Form of Activism,” The New York Times, June 19, 2021; David Gelles and Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Hundreds of Companies Unite to Oppose Voting Limits, But Others Abstain,” The New York Times, April 14, 2021; Rebecca Falconer, “Trump Calls for Boycott of More Companies over Georgia Voting Law,” Axios, April 4, 2021; David Gelles, “Delta and Coca-Cola Reverse Course on Georgia Voting Law, Stating ‘Crystal Clear’ Opposition,” The New York Times, March 31, 2021