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Companies new activity on controversial issues “may signal a major shift in corporate public relations”

Pfizer presented blocking of its drugs for lethal injection in a values framework: “Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment.”

In addition to such values-ethical framework of decisions, companies must also consider — and balance — traditional stakeholder interests and local/regional cultures when they address delicate, evolving social issues. In the face of political opposition, valuable management time and company resources are often dedicated to resolve the issues.

North Carolina has been a signature case for such disputes. Last week, Bank of America, headquartered in Charlotte, announced that its leadership was joining over 80 chief executives objecting to new state legislation eliminating anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Their letter to the governor said ,”Such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business.”

A recent academic study of such corporate socio-political involvement suggests that it may well grow. Authors Aaron K. Chatterji, associate professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and Michael W. Toffel, professor at The Harvard Business School ,offered this analysis:

“Over the past few years, chief executives have been taking public stances on controversial issues like race relations and gender equality that are unrelated to their core business …Our findings are quite preliminary. But if they turn out to  hold more broadly, they may signal a major shift in corporate public relations. Until recently, most large companies seemed neutral on controversial social issues, not wanting to alienate a large segment of potential customers… But in an era of political polarization … corporate neutrality may be outdated … Perhaps it is better in 2016 to be intensively loved by a few than inoffensive to many.”