The contentious political times we live in offer scant places to hide for the average company. For every Patagonia that wears its collective ideology on its sleeve, there are thousands of companies that would rather not take a stand on anything because it annoys half of their customers. But that is less and less likely to work in the heated environment we live in, where emotions are at the surface, and even the US president seems more like the Tweeter-in-Chief.
Within the US, perhaps no issue has glowed as white hot as the recent kerfuffle over how companies should treat the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA, which started as an association for hunters, has evolved over the years into a potent political force for gun rights, with ardent supporters, as well as determined detractors who want nothing less than to put the organization in their cross-hairs.
So, after another tragic school shooting, the NRA has been called out for its political stand, with gun control activists blaming the organization for the continuing mass shooting tragedies in the US. What’s different this time is that companies are suddenly the targets.
Many companies, it turns out, have been offering discounts to NRA members. Others have been issuing NRA logo credit cards. Some have been airing an NRA streaming channel. Each company has to wrestle with the fallout in its own way and there are no easy answers.
Most companies have decided to end discounts for NRA members, but FedEx has decided to stick with them. No matter which decision you make, the other side calls for a boycott. Lest you think that these boycotts are ineffective, note that conservative icon Bill O’Reilly was taken off the air by Fox News when advertisers fled his show in the face of sexual harassment allegations. At least sometimes, the boycotts work.
Roku, the video streaming company, has so far said that it will keep the NRA channel in its lineup. Amazon and Netflix haven’t commented yet. This question can be framed as a freedom of speech question, where streaming companies do not want to be called out for being the arbiters of content but the inflamed nature of today’s political discourse ensures that will be controversial. Each side in these arguments often seems determined to be heard themselves and to have reasons why the other side should not be heard. Or they paint themselves are the downtrodden martyrs that the media will not give a fair shake. It doesn’t matter the issue — these tactics seem to crop up everywhere.
So what are companies to do?
Most of the companies offering NRA membership discounts were treating the group the same way they would treat members of any other association. They are withdrawing discounts now because they have made the financial calculation that they are annoying more people than they are pleasing.
Once a company is in one of these firing lines (sorry), there is no escape. You just get to decide who to make angrier at you. There have been a few famous situations in which a knee-jerk approach caused both sides to get angry, such as when the Susan G. Komen Foundation first rejected Planned Parenthood funding and then reversed course.
I have been working with a few companies recently that actually want to get ahead of this. They believe that being a purpose-driven company will at least allow them to seek an audience and stick with them. I have asked them how they decide which purposes they want to be known for, and often they don’t have very clear answers, even among the company leaders. This could be a strong approach, especially for up-and-coming companies, but I don’t know that most of them have been practical about exactly how to do this. So far, it is mostly talk without a lot of execution.
In contrast, most of my clients would love for all of these controversies to go away. They are driven by wanting to please all potential customers, and are uneasy with choices that result in being hated by half the market. Those companies are taking a very close look at:
- Association discounts
- Partnerships with any organization
- Supply chain members and their practices
- Political positions by principles
They are working on cleaning up any semblance of partiality everywhere they can, hoping to exit these potentially toxic situations quietly, before headlines ensue. They will just let their support for causes lapse or their agreements expire. Anything to wriggle free out of the glare of the headlines.
Is this the result that activists desire? Almost certainly not. The activists that I know expect that their pressure is a way to make corporations good citizens. The problem is that each side applies its own mutually exclusive litmus test on these companies, whose response is to run for the hills and do nothing controversial. You would think that the Susan G. Komen Foundation would be something everyone can support; I personally am opposed to breast cancer, just so you know. These controversial issues caused damage with both pro-choice and anti-abortion forces, which in the US is just about everyone.
So those of you watching these events unfold with NRA who smugly said to yourself, “Hey, we never did anything with the NRA,” just wait. Your issue is coming. Maybe you should be thinking of what you want to proactively do instead. Are you going to take a series of stands for purposes you believe in? Or are you going to find every way you can to sit on the sidelines? Whichever one you pick, it’s best to choose before the firefight starts.