For many American businesses, the election of Donald Trump was a surprise, but not an unhappy one. They quickly adjusted their projections and looked forward to four years of deregulation and business-friendly policies. But as the first ten months of Trump’s presidency has been roiled in controversy and marked by unforced errors, we find ourselves in divided and divisive times. As a result, some business leaders are embracing PR and advocacy in ways they never anticipated.
Mr. Trump’s response to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville was a clear tipping point for many large businesses. Yet even before August, we saw CEOs break with the president on policy issues and personal conduct in unprecedented ways. Some have become advocates on key social and political issues that actively challenge the administration. And with public confidence in our institutions eroding, we’ve seen CEOs from major companies take on the president and his allies on combustible issues, or even start to try to bridge our national divide.
So, how do those executives (and the skilled communicators who represent them) speak out while mitigating the downside risk? Here are how some top companies are taking a stand on divisive matters in the Trump era.
Much of the corporate advocacy we’ve seen has been in response to issues in the news, like the state-sponsored bathroom bills or the #takeaknee movement among NFL players. But social advocacy works best when it grows out of existing corporate values and the strategies and tactics that communicate them. Smart advocates know their own audiences and what matters to them, and they identify internal and external champions for the positions they articulate. A response to a presidential tweet or the announcement of an executive order shouldn’t come as a surprise; rather, it’s an outgrowth of the company’s philosophy, culture, and values.
Principles are important, but so is context. When a technology leader speaks about the need for skilled engineers, or a midwest farm company explains how a labor shortage is impacting its growth, it places emotional issues into a constructive framework for discussion. Criticizing a Muslim immigration ban can trigger reflexive responses from both sides of the issue, but looking at the bigger picture and how business and cultural goals are met through a business-friendly immigration policy is more likely to advance the public discussion. No one does this better than a corporate CEO.
Similarly, positive messaging can help defuse discussion of an emotionally charged issue. Rather than simply attack the administration’s immigration position, many CEOs promoted the contributions of American immigrants, offered practical help to those who needed it, or spoke on behalf of diversity as a core American value.
Smart CEOs use their own status as employers and the strength of their workforce when communicating an advocacy position. No audience is likely to be more powerful that a multinational corporation’s own workforce. A strong social position may not be as useful for attracting new customers as it is for deepening existing relationships with employees, partners, and existing customers. Successful corporate advocates also look to align with like-minded leaders. The success of businesses in galvanizing public opposition to DACA policy or even the Paris climate agreement repeal (which drew diverse business critics) was in part due to a coordinated response by so many businesses and advocacy organizations.
When Dara Khosrowshahi, now chief executive of Uber, was CEO of Expedia, he spoke out against the administration’s travel ban with a uniquely personal point of view. Khosrowshahi referenced his own family’s experience immigrating to the U.S. from Iran in 1978, describing the enormous sense of welcome and comfort they experienced after arriving here. Although Apple CEO Tim Cook guarded his privacy for several years, he was ultimately moved to speak in favor of marriage equality and against “religious freedom” legislation that many in his position view as a thinly veiled license to discriminate against LGBT people.
We’ve seen this in many brands’ decision to drop advertising in “fake news” outlets or those with unacceptable editorial content―and not just with YouTube or Breitbart. Remember the bathroom bill boycotts? Businesses united in a common purpose overcame entrenched positions by local lawmakers. When NBC began promoting Megyn Kelly’s interview with conspiracist Alex Jones, many companies, including J.P. Morgan Chase, cancelled ads on the show, and CMO Kristin Lemkau was vocal about the reasons. Just as consumers have learned to exercise their buying clout, so have large advertisers.
Every worthy action sparks a reaction, naturally. A smart PR team will have a plan for social media pushback or even organized social action like protests or boycotts. The key to handling organized opposition is to overstaff the response. No one welcomes a distraction, but most large brands are experienced and have the internal and external resources to manage a vigorous public debate.
Occasionally a brand will make a stand for good reasons, but without anticipating a negative response from what is typically a small group of vocal critics. When things get hot, the temptation may be to retrench. This is almost always a mistake, because the company will end up swapping one group of critics for another. Opponents smell weakness, employees are confused or disheartened, and media delight at a story with fresh legs. Nothing is worse than a flip-flop.
As global citizens and employers with a huge stake in just about every high-impact issue from climate change to immigration, the world’s largest companies can and should use their leverage―and PR power―to support positive dialogue, pragmatic leadership, and stability in a very chaotic time.