What’s Really Driving the Politicization of America’s CEOs?

Forces from Within May Be Pushing Business Leaders into Hasty Positions They’ll Regret                    

4/6/21 – – Watching the escalating fallout from the political positions taken by corporations in response to revised Georgia election law, it’s hard not to wonder why so many companies have jumped into this reputational briar patch.

I’m not suggesting that voter equity is unimportant, that businesses have no role in promoting the well-being of the communities they serve, or that CEOs are not expressing heart-felt beliefs. But what’s really driving Delta, Coca-Cola, Major League Baseball and scores of other private corporations to take aggressive public stands in opposition to legislation that places Georgia in the mainstream of state election regulation — by most measures more liberal than New York (where Major League Baseball is headquartered) or Delaware (the home state of President Joe Biden, who has labeled Georgia’s revised law “Jim Crow on steroids”)?

Some have suggested that fear is at the heart of today’s corporate political activism. No CEO wants to be labeled a racist or face the consequences of a consumer boycott. Others applaud the heightened political participation, pointing out that modern consumers want to do business only with companies that share and promote positions with which they agree.

Both motives certainly are at play here. But I would like to suggest that the politicization of America’s CEOs is also being pushed by the communications professionals within their ranks. Over the last 10 years or so, companies have been hiring more and more political operatives — Republicans and Democrats who have worked for elected officials or within political campaigns — to fill positions within their public relations and corporate affairs departments. That’s a relatively new track that I believe has profoundly impacted the communications programs and positions of American’s corporate leaders.

Two high-level examples: Jay Carney left his position as White House press secretary for President Obama to become senior vice president of global corporate affairs at Amazon. Hope Hicks served as executive vice president and chief communications officer at Fox before returning to the White House as a senior advisor to President Trump.

Here’s the problem: Communicators trained within the world of politics naturally gravitate toward political solutions to most challenges, and are more comfortable with the partisanship and rancor characterizing political discourse and advertising. CEOs become candidates. Programs and products become platforms. Winning the hearts and minds of 55% of an audience is seen as a landslide victory, not a devastating loss of 45% market share.

Let me share a whimsical tale that demonstrates the difficulty in changing a tiger’s stripes:   

Business has not been good for Jerry, a ventriloquist. He’s very good at what he does and loves entertaining people. But his once-dependable birthday, bar mitzvah and convention work has dried up. Desperate to find a suitable new line of work, he enrolls in a business course at the local community college titled “Reimagining Your Business.” Embracing the professor’s “repurpose what you do best” philosophy, he gets right to work developing a new business plan he hopes will put him back on a path to prosperity.

He leases space in a busy strip shopping center and opens Jerry’s Séance Parlor, offering customers the opportunity to conveniently communicate with their deceased loved ones in between dropping off the dry cleaning and picking up groceries. Things go really well for a while, then drop off dramatically. Struggling to pay his rent, Jerry reaches out to his professor.

“I did just what you said,” he explains. “I used my ventriloquist talents in an innovative way to delight people. Honestly, there were lines out the door. Then things went south overnight.”

“Did you change anything in the store, increase your prices?” asks the professor. “Did you get bad reviews online?”

“My reviews were spectacular, word of mouth was fantastic,” Jerry replies. “Thinking back, the only thing I did was introduce a new premium offering.”

“What was that?” asks the professor.

“Well, for my base price of $25 I connect with your loved one in the great beyond and relay your questions and his or her answers. For $35, you get to talk directly with your deceased relative and you hear their voice. That’s what really sets me apart from all those run-of-the-mill spiritualists out there.”

“Sounds terrific, so what changed?”

“Now for $50, you get to talk with the dead and hear their voice . . . all while I’m eating crackers and drinking a glass of water!”

“Jerry, I think we found your problem,” surmises the professor.

Jerry couldn’t help himself. And neither can many repurposed political operatives now well represented within public relations departments throughout corporate America. They too-often see only political answers for every challenge that comes their way.

Am I pushing for companies to terminate all former political communicators? No. Some of my best friends are repurposed “political comms” folks (and probably will be insulted by this blog). Lots of valuable experience comes with exposure to the high-pressure, performance-driven world of politics. What I am suggesting is that CEOs should require their PR advisors to present both political and non-political options whenever deciding a course of action. “Can we be on the right side of this issue without alienating half of America?”

Insist on that approach and you’ll have a much better chance of navigating today’s reputational storms, even while eating crackers and drinking a glass of water.

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