Pundits and politicians have bemoaned our country’s cultural and partisan divisions for years. Yet things have gotten worse. There’s just not much that brings us together these days. We’ve seen an erosion of confidence in our major institutions – government, faith groups, and media, among others.
I’ve long thought that this perfect storm of disunity represents an obligation – and an opportunity – for corporate America. It’s time for the business community as a group and individual businesses as brands, to help us heal the divide. In the wake of the shocking violence last week, that may be starting to happen, and there’s a role for PR and corporate communications. After all, we are all about credibility. But it’s now America’s reputation that’s on the line, and the right messaging isn’t enough.
The roots of what happened Wednesday are deep. But big business is in a unique position to help restore confidence in our systems. Large companies are mostly bipartisan. Citizens and media respect and listen to them, and elected officials count on their support. Most have huge advertising and marketing clout. Sure, they have their own best interests and that of their shareholders in mind, but they rely primarily on facts and numbers, not ideology or opinions. After years of staying out of most political and cultural controversies, many corporations spoke out during the Trump administration, especially following the murder of George Floyd. Now, the stakes are higher.
As images of the flag-waving mob filled our newsfeeds, business groups mounted a strong response. The National Association of Manufacturers, a business lobbying powerhouse that has welcomed many of the president’s policies, pointed a finger directly at Mr. Trump and urged his removal.
“The outgoing president incited violence in an attempt to retain power, and any elected leader defending him is violating their oath to the Constitution and rejecting democracy in favor of anarchy. Anyone indulging conspiracy theories to raise campaign dollars is complicit. Vice President Pence, who was evacuated from the Capitol, should seriously consider working with the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to preserve democracy.”
Many AAM member companies offered comment in support of the statement. Other groups, including labor unions, the National Retail Federation, and the Chamber of Commerce, followed with strong statements of condemnation. The AFL-CIO called the riot “one of the greatest assaults on our democracy since the Civil War.”
What’s encouraging is that other businesses were even more pointed in their actions, putting their money on the line. By Monday, Marriott, Blue Cross Blue Shied, Commerce Bancshares and Citibank said they will stop donating to members of Congress who objected to the certification of the Electoral College vote. CVS Health Corp., Exxon Mobil, FedEx and Target are reported to be reviewing their political giving. Still others, including Bank of America, Ford Motor Co. and AT&T, say they will “take recent events into consideration before making future donations.” I’m not sure what that means, but it’s clear that every major corporation is looking at its public affairs, lobbying, and candidate donation commitments in a new context. This is big. And in what might be the unkindest cut for Trump, organizers of the 2022 PGA Championship canceled plans to host its event at his Bedminster, N.J. golf course.
To be sure, many commitments are vague or open-ended, and the repudiation comes after several corporations chose to look the other way for too long after the election results were confirmed. Many overlooked inhumane policies or controversial tweets because they loved the administration’s tax cuts. As Starbucks founder Howard Schultz put it, “The Trump tax cut was fool’s gold.” Last week, those businesses woke up – too late to tamp down the lies that led to the insurrection, but not too late to help repair the damage.
The most attention-getting corporate responses were by the tech companies who control social media platforms. Weeks after slapping labels on many of the president’s tweets, Twitter suspended his account, then banned it altogether. Facebook announced a suspension until after the inauguration, and Amazon Web Services took the extraordinary step of denying hosting services to right-wing platform Parler, a destination for #StoptheSteal organizing. The move forces Parler offline until it can find another host.
These actions raise questions about the motives of companies like Twitter and Facebook. The suspensions don’t violate free speech, as some have alleged. But the tech giants have been rightly accused of wanting to have their cake and eat it, too – the freedom of a neutral tech platform with the scale and sway of a media company, yet with none of the accountability. And their actions come just after the Georgia runoff elections that gave slim control of the Senate to Democrats – many of whom have pushed for tighter regulation. But their motives don’t have to be pure for the actions to make an impact. If nothing else, it sets a precedent for the future.
What does it all mean, and how should corporate communicators behave? First, I think we can’t underreact to what happened. What may have looked like a clown coup on Wednesday now emerges as a violent mob bent on insurrection and very real harm. The videos are ghastly, and more will surely come out. Everyone can unify around a position that rejects violence.
Corporate America can also stand up for objective truth. We’re witnessing this trainwreck because reckless lawmakers claimed the 2020 election was stolen, and their lies were amplified within the right-wing media ecosystem. As much as I hate to see lawsuits against a media outlet – any media outlet – it was impressive how fast NewsMax and OANN backed down after being threatened with defamation complaints. Our judiciary is probably the only U.S. institution that has held up during the president’s unceasing attacks on the integrity of our election, so let’s use it when other methods for accountability fail.
Business media can also step up, and it has. Forbes did something unprecedented. In what it terms “a truth reckoning,” it is calling on corporate America not to let the “chronic liars cash in on their dishonesty” by hiring Trump administration press secretaries as communications officers. Reeling off a list of former administration presssecs from Sean Spicer to Kayleigh McEnany, Chief Content Officer Randall Lane points out that in PR, “credibility is the coin of the realm.” They are words to warm any CCO’s heart.
“Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet. Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.”
Then there’s the advertising clout of big business. In my opinion, ad boycotts are tricky. They’re invoked too often for silly reasons and they often fail to produce the desired results. But now is the time for every top advertiser to scrutinize its traditional media and digital/social commitments to ensure they’re aligned with corporate values – and common sense. The election lie isn’t going to go away, but it cannot be allowed to fester and grow.
Finally, businesses must support their communities with leadership, backed by solid communications about their intentions and actions. There are plenty of bipartisan issues and initiatives to champion. There are opportunities to speak out on tough issues without being divisive. There are ways to fight back against malignant propaganda about our institutions through public service campaigns, advocacy, and one-on-one diplomacy. Our glorious and imperfect country has suffered under a lack of leadership, but there’s nothing like a little sedition to bring us together. As influencers and advocates for business leaders, we in public relations all have a role.