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Everyone knows by now that certain Georgia-based companies – Coca-Cola, Delta, Home Depot, and probably others – experienced a public relations train wreck this week after falling under attack from both sides of the Georgia election law reform debate. Both sides? How did that happen? It is the worst-case scenario for any public relations professional. But don’t blame them. At least entirely.
In these instances, many other people in companies like these – all publicly-owned consumer product goods and services corporations – get involved. People like the general counsel, the company’s top lawyer. The head of “government affairs” (disclosure: I used to be one). The “Chief People Person,” as it is called at many companies these days (the head of “human relations,” or HR for short).
And don’t forget the “Corporate Social Accountability” person, who deals with “socially responsible investor groups” who invest in companies in hopes of influencing them to be, well, “socially responsible,” mostly around climate change, diversity and inclusion, and other politically-correct causes. And, ultimately, the Chief Executive Officer.
I have no original reporting here, just a likely scenario based on my own twenty years of experience in the consumer products world. Here is how this likely, and generally, played out. And there are a pair of lessons to learn.
The PR people started getting inundated with calls from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and no shortage of national media, including all the networks. The Government Affairs leader, reading his emails and seeing media coverage, begins to fret over his friendly state legislators, political operatives, and staff for the governor and other officials in his home state government. And don’t forget all the consultants they hire to give them sage advice in circumstances like this. Think of people like Lincoln Project founders Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s campaign manager during his failed 2008 presidential campaign, or Rick Wilson. Advising companies is what they generally do when they’re not grifting. You can look them up. Companies hire them for their “strategic advice.” They are others from all political persuasions.
Meanwhile, woke, progressive organizations are ginning up their extensive grassroots operations to barrage executives and directors at these companies to take action. Tens of thousands of emails and calls, in some instances. Their goal is simple – to pressure companies to oppose or change government action that they oppose. In this case, they hate SB 202, the new Georgia election reform law signed by Gov. Brian Kemp this week that the media have badly mischaracterized. The new law’s simple reforms make it harder to cheat on absentee ballots and a few other reforms most people would find uncontroversial.
But it is the verification procedures on absentee ballots that have the progressives all upset. Signature verification for absentee ballots was relaxed if not eliminated in many states in 2020. That’s how, in part, Georgia Democrats were successful in 2020 in helping elect Joe Biden and two new Democratic US Senators in Georgia. Adding new verification procedures – providing a driver’s license or free State ID number – to absentee mail-in ballots adds a step to voting that these progressive groups don’t like. They don’t want their massive “vote by mail” machines and efforts challenged or “burdened” in any way. They call it “voter suppression.” And they appear to have sold that tale to the corporate overlords.
The first people to pay attention to new laws are the government affairs people. When the pressure starts, they quickly study this stuff and offer up draft statements to the PR people designed to appease “both sides” without offending the government affairs’ main constituents, state officials (especially the governor). After all, these corporations all get tax, economic, and other benefits from the state that allows them to operate more profitably.
Meanwhile, the HR lead – the Chief People Person – is being hit up from company “affinity groups” (women, African Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQ, etc.), many with connections to progressive organizations outside the company to get the company engaged.
And few, if anyone, has actually read the bill outside of the government affairs lead.
While this is going on, the CEO is receiving a few “heads up” from his direct reports, including the general counsel and, of course, the “Chief People Person.” He calls for a quick meeting, including the “Corporate Social Responsibility Officer” (“investor groups are demanding we intervene!”), for an assessment. And then the CEO starts getting calls, pressure, and possibly veiled threats from people like Stacey Abrams, the putative governor (defeated in 2018), and other progressive “stakeholders” he may know. To her credit, she’s probably worked to develop a relationship with the company. And the calls and emails keep coming.
They finally agree on a statement that they think plays to most people. The Government Affairs lead watches and listens as the CEO buys what Stacey Abrams and the thousands of emails are selling. And he agrees to oppose the bill, calling it “voter suppression.” For Delta, it was worse. They originally offered faint praise for the law, then did a complete 180-degree turn. That really doesn’t look good.
Congratulations, Coke and Delta, you’ve just made yourself the story on a controversial issue – anathema to most consumer goods companies. Politically smarter CEOs and companies kept their powder dry.
What are the lessons learned here? There are two—one for corporations and another for the community missing entirely from this story: conservatives.
For corporations, you made this bed. You yielded to affinity groups in your own company, leftist investor groups, or bad political advice to weigh in on an issue that you had no expertise to offer. Nobody looks to a beverage company, airline, or hardware retailer for guidance on election reforms. Credit LGBTQ organizations that wrote the playbook on how to influence corporate behavior. This playbook is now being used for other causes. I see no evidence that it is helping bottom lines or enhances “shareholder value.” Just because public opinion turned on an issue like gay marriage doesn’t mean it will do likewise on something like election reform. They should have seen it coming. And it won’t stop here.
For conservatives, the lesson is simpler. Where are you?
Progressive groups can gin up tens of thousands of emails that appear organic. Left-leaning investor groups are in constant contact with investor relations directors at public corporations and corporate social responsibility leaders to push companies to adopt programs and policies.
Meanwhile, there are few, if any, conservative organizations that engage corporations on policy and politics.
To their credit, progressives seem to have much more money now than conservative organizations. There is no shortage of billionaire funders of leftist causes. Conservative billionaires are engaged, too, but not to this degree and certainly do not influence corporations on public policy issues. Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers creation, is very non-partisan and grassroots-oriented but isn’t known for reaching out to companies the way progressives do. Not even close. And now, they’re doing joint projects with leftist funders.
It’s really not that public corporations like Coke and Delta have “gone left.” They respond to smart, comprehensive, and never-ending pressure campaigns from well-organized activists. Leftists have figured this out. Conservatives seem content to complain on Fox News and social media. They have no one to blame but themselves.
Oh, sure, conservatives will reward a company like Goya Foods in the marketplace when they speak up in a way they like, and that’s valuable. But “Boycotts” and “Buy-cotts” are not enough and rarely effective in the long term.
Yes, there are conservative investor groups, but I’ve never heard from one in the context of public policy. Some don’t think this investing delivers much of a return. That strikes me as short-sighted. 2nd Vote grades companies based on their contributions and political activity. Are there others? I know of no right-leaning organizations geared to mobilize the kinds of calls, emails, and related contacts at public companies. Perhaps they exist.
There are clearly voids waiting to be filled. Opportunities are being missed, and it is long past time to level the playing field.Published in