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WSJ, Economist columnists joust on CEOs taking positions on socio-political issues; CSR, PR experts opine

Seems as if almost everyone has a point of view on whether companies should “go public” with opinions on socio-political issues. But when The Wall Street Journal and The Economist offer conflicting positions on such a core issue of business in society (thankfully, not opinions on Business in Society) – that demands special attention.

The issue at the moment, of course, is the current wave of voter suppression legislation sweeping across America.

The Wall Street Journal piece heralds a new epoch:

“CEOs Lead America’s New Great Awakening

“Their political activism on behalf of voting rights will help bring about a spiritual revival”  CEOs Lead America’s New Great Awakening

The Economist, not so much:

“The political CEO

“Business and politics are growing closer in America, with worrying consequences”    The political CEO   * 

It’s important to note that the WSJ piece is a guest opinion on an op-ed page; The Economist analysis is staff written (presented in two articles). Interestingly, both invoke the late Milton Friedman, free market champion of the 1970s.

Furthermore, the articles go well beyond the issue of the voter suppression issue, examining the pros and cons of the seemingly expanding corporate perimeter of influence in society via corporate social responsibility.

In the WSJ column, Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfield, a professor and dean at the Yale School of Management, is quite expansive. Having cited earlier American CEO protests on guns safety, immigration, climate change and social justice, he takes a bold leap:

“This business awakening shouldn’t be ridiculed but celebrated as the rediscovery of a misunderstood pillar of America’s industrial greatness …

“Ensuring social cohesion in democracy is part of a CEO’s job of managing the strategic environment…Speaking up is also part of the job. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan all spoke to issues outside the shop. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 92% of employees expect their CEO to speak out on issues of the day. Surveys have found that CEOs are among the most trusted voices in society today…

“American religious history produced four Great Awakenings – and now American business is sparking a fifth spiritual awakening.”

However, The Economist :

“We believe that companies operating in competitive markets advance social progress. Nonetheless, as classic liberals, we also believe that concentrations of power are dangerous. Businesspeople [sic] will always lobby for their own advantage, but the closer they get to the government, the more harm they threaten to both the economy and politics …

“Chief executives claim that they simply have no choice but to tackle societal concerns because in the age of social media their customers, employees and shareholders demand it. [Presenting six relevant 2020-2021 charts], The evidence for such assertions is mixed…”

“Speaking out” is, of course, only one form and dimension of potential corporate action. On the voting issue, companies might well start with review of their employee relations policies supporting and encouraging workers to vote. And in the wake of the January 6th U.S. insurrection, many U.S. companies pledged to cease contributions to legislators who supported it. Although it is difficult to assess, most have reportedly honored that pledge. But corporate or consumer boycotts of states suppressing voting are somewhat controversial among activists in that they can cause economic grief for workers in those states.

To be sure, these decisions represent a significant element of corporate reputation management. And they reflect a confluence of personal and company values. It would seem appropriate for corporate boards (or relevant board committees) to at least be pre-aware of, if not actually involved, in such commitments.

Public relations profession leader Ron Culp has offered astute commentary on this  “Q&A: Aligning Personal and Corporate Political Beliefs” .

The Public Relations Society of America has recently also been active on the issue:   “14 Views on When a Company Should Speak Out About a Social Issue Today” .This forum follows on the launch of PRSA’s major new advocacy campaign, “Voices4Everyone” . It “supports a national conversation building mutual understanding, trust, and civic engagement through more inclusive civil discourse”, with special emphasis on diversity/inclusion and disinformation.

Voices For Everyone.