Over the past several years of political discord, many CEOs have felt the need to voice their views on important political, environmental and social issues. For example, after the murder of George Floyd and resulting national protests, many of the country’s largest corporations expressed solidarity and pledged support for racial justice. After January 6, a number of companies announced that their corporate PACs had suspended—temporarily or permanently—their contributions to one or both political parties or to lawmakers who objected to certification of the presidential election. Historically, companies have faced reputational risk for taking—or not taking—positions on some political, environmental or social issues, which can certainly impair a company’s social capital and, in some cases, its performance. These types of risks can be more nebulous and unpredictable than traditional operating or financial risks—and the extent of potential damage may be more difficult to gauge. As if it weren’t hard enough for companies to figure out whether and how to respond to social crises, now, another potent ingredient has been stirred into the mix: the actions of state and local governments—wielding the levers of government—to enact legislation or take executive action that targets companies that express public positions on sociopolitical issues or conduct their businesses in a manner disfavored by the government in power. As described by Bloomberg, while “companies usually faced mainly reputational damage for their social actions, politicians are increasingly eager to craft legislation that can be used as a cudgel against businesses that don’t share their social views.” And many of these actions are aimed, not just at expressed political positions, but rather at environmental and social measures that companies may view as strictly responsive to investor or employee concerns, shareholder proposals, current or anticipated governmental regulation, identified business risks or even business opportunities. How will these legislative trends affect the difficult corporate balancing act?
If you think 2021 was a tough year for corporate political activity, 2022 may be even more challenging.
That’s according to a recent survey from The Conference Board of government relations executives and managers of political action committees. In the survey, 87% of respondents said they expect 2022 to be at least as challenging as 2021, and 42% anticipate that it may actually be worse. In the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, many companies and CEOs spoke out, signed public statements and determined to pause or discontinue some or all political donations. The heated political climate also heightened sensitivity to any dissonance or conflict between those public statements or other publicly announced core company values and the company’s political contributions, further complicating the political environment for companies and executives. In the survey, respondents cited a number of factors that contributed to the difficult environment for corporate political activity in 2021: in particular, 77% cited the frequent emergence of new social and political issues on which companies faced pressure to take a stance. According to the Executive Director of The Conference Board ESG Center, “With the 2022 mid-term election year bringing sustained scrutiny, companies that engage in political activity need to make the affirmative case for why they do so….They should focus on engaging and educating both internal and external stakeholders on how their activities serve both corporate and societal purposes.”
In the last couple of years, many CEOs have felt the need to voice their views on political, environmental and social issues, such as racial justice and voting restrictions. For example, after the murder of George Floyd and resulting national protests, many of the country’s largest corporations expressed solidarity and pledged support for racial justice. After January 6, a number of companies announced that their corporate PACs had suspended—temporarily or permanently—their contributions to one or both political parties or to lawmakers who objected to certification of the presidential election. However, as The Conference Board has recently stated, in the current “era of intense political polarization in the United States, and with the immediacy, ubiquity, and (often) inaccuracy of social media, companies are subject to ever-greater scrutiny for their political activities.” In this article, Deloitte and the Society for Corporate Governance report on a survey they conducted in July 2021 about companies’ approaches to publicly addressing controversial social and political issues. As the authors note, “taking a stance publicly on controversial or sensitive topics poses both risks and opportunities, including alienating or appealing to key stakeholders; enhancing or damaging the corporate culture; and eroding or building trust and brand reputation,” leading some companies to consider more systematically how they approach public engagement on these types of issues.
A new piece in the NYT, “Corporations, Vocal About Racial Justice, Go Quiet on Voting Rights,” starts off this way: “As Black Lives Matter protesters filled the streets last summer, many of the country’s largest corporations expressed solidarity and pledged support for racial justice. But now, with lawmakers around the country advancing restrictive voting rights bills that would have a disproportionate impact on Black voters, corporate America has gone quiet.” The author is talking about new voting laws just passed in Georgia and the reluctance, with some exceptions, of the largest corporations to say anything or do anything—beyond anodyne statements of support for voting rights in general—that might pressure the state to back down, as major corporations did when several states passed their infamous transgender bathroom bills and many companies threatened to move business out of those states. As the NYT observed, the “muted response—coming from companies that last year promised to support social justice—infuriated activists, who are now calling for boycotts.” Last night, the NYT reported that two of the largest corporations in Georgia have abruptly reversed course and issued statements in opposition to the voting bills after a large group of prominent Black business leaders called on companies “to publicly oppose a wave of similarly restrictive voting bills that Republicans are advancing in almost every state.” In an interview with the WSJ, one of those business leaders emphasized that this “is a nonpartisan issue, this is a moral issue.” This battle is expected to continue as other states enact similar legislation, not to mention potential fights over guns, immigration and climate, to name a few. How do companies navigate the terrain of political activity and public scrutiny while staying true to their core values? In this new report, “Under a Microscope: A New Era of Scrutiny for Corporate Political Activity,” The Conference Board attempts to address this complicated issue.