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Joel Fox: Political Season a Headache for Business

Businesses sensitive about their public image often feel whipsawed during the political season when being pressured by both activists and bottom-line shareholders. This political year, politics and business mix into a troublesome concoction of protest petitions, boycotts and quarrels over candidates and causes.

As the state Republican convention kicks off in Burlingame some of the biggest California companies are hearing from activists urging them not to be involved in supporting the national GOP convention. Protestors are petitioning Google and other companies to say no to setting up shop and helping fund GOP convention events because of Donald Trump’s rhetorical invectives.

However, the political protest season goes the other way, too. A petition signed by supposedly 700,000 people calls for a boycott against Target stores after the retailer announced transgender people are welcome to use the restrooms that they identify with the most.

Does business want to be in the middle of the political and culture wars that gain wide media attention and have passionate advocates on both sides of the issues?

The answer is generally no, although you’ll never hear that spoken by some executives who want to portray their businesses as good corporate citizens that must take a stand on moral issues.

All well and good, but as some critics point out, fairly, businesses are not always consistent on their moral stands. For example, as Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich noted when he voted no on a county resolution to boycott North Carolina over the transgender bathroom issue, “The corporations and entertainers and others are calling for the boycott of North Carolina — however, they are more than happy to entertain or conduct business in countries which support and sponsor the persecution, oppression, and violence against individuals based on gender, religion, and sexual orientation.”

Why do businesses take a split stand? Because they believe they can influence state governments but don’t feel they have the power to change attitudes of foreign governments. Businesses are also afraid of the actions foreign governments might take against them. Apple, for instance, has taken a strong position on gay rights and against discrimination, even publicly opposing California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. Yet, the company has not taken such a public stand against China where the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission says discrimination against gays and lesbians is still written into many laws.

China’s market is a strong and valuable one for Apple. (Yesterday, investor Carl Icahn announced he will dump his Apple stock fearing China may get more restrictive to Apple products.)

The public image of Apple or any business takes a hit if it is a moral preacher on one hand but a “nothing’s-happening-here-move-along” excuser on the other.

If businesses choose to be a “good corporate citizen,” they have the right to make that choice, but they should be consistent in their policy, then the business should be prepared for the consequences. Once making a decision they should stand firm against intimidation, boycotts and other forms of protest.

This article appears as it was written by Joel Fox and published in Fox & Hounds on April 29, 2016.


Posted on April 29, 2016

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