Why many companies are taking political positions today. : The Indicator from Planet Money Politics used to be off limits for most American companies — at least publicly. Most would usually take a neutral position when a big political story hit the news. But that has changed.
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Companies Get Political

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Companies Get Political

Companies Get Political

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC'S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Hey, everyone. Cardiff and Stacey here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. So, Cardiff, a lot of news this last week.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Yeah. It's been a week that has lasted a decade, essentially.

VANEK SMITH: Like the world's longest week. Of course, there was like the riot where rioters stormed the Capitol and took over the building for a while. The FBI is hunting down the people who participated in that riot right now.

GARCIA: Yeah. And, of course, today the House of Representatives is moving to impeach President Trump for the second time. And thousands of troops have been called to Washington, D.C., to help secure the inauguration of Joe Biden as president next week.

VANEK SMITH: And so all of this stuff is going on. All these huge events are going on. And there's also been this strange outcry from corporate America during all this.

GARCIA: Yeah, involving a lot of companies, by the way, some big companies like Twitter and Facebook and Amazon, which, of course, provided the platforms on which a lot of the writers were communicating with each other.

VANEK SMITH: Right. And what was surprising was this flood of companies that made announcements that had had nothing to do with the riots last week, like Marriott Hotels, BlueCross BlueShield, MasterCard, Dow Chemical, American Express. They all came out and said that they were going to halt donations to lawmakers who had supported efforts to disrupt the confirmation of Joe Biden's presidential victory.

GARCIA: And there are a bunch of companies like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Ford, that said they were just not going to give any money to politicians at all for a while...

VANEK SMITH: Full stop.

GARCIA: ...Which is interesting because it's like they're saying, hey, on principle, we are going to keep our own money.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: We're taking a stand right here right now. It's a good thing to have corporate America providing this moral compass for us.

GARCIA: Exactly.

VANEK SMITH: There - it is kind of a shift, though, it really is. I mean, corporate America has always been political, right? But the politics have almost always been played out behind closed doors, under the table. I mean, these kinds of public stands about politics and corporate giving, at least on this kind of a scale, is new.

GARCIA: Yeah. And so to understand everything that's been going on, we called up Lee Newman. Lee is the CEO of advertising agency MullenLowe U.S. And our conversation with Lee is coming up right after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Lee Newman, CEO of advertising agency MullenLowe U.S., thank you for joining us. So the first thing I wanted to ask you about was this change that we've been seeing in how companies are handling kind of the political events that are happening right now. I mean, in the past, I guess in the before time, say, a couple of years ago, from what I understood, it was always sort of conventional wisdom for companies to kind of stay out of politics.

LEE NEWMAN: I think that's exactly right. While there may have been things happening behind the scenes and certainly political donations and lobbyists, to the public-facing eye generally speaking, brands were trying to remain neutral and stay out of politics.

VANEK SMITH: I'm wondering if there was a point this year when you started to see a lot of companies coming to you about how to approach politics. I'm wondering, was it around the murder of George Floyd?

NEWMAN: Yeah, that was a watershed moment, because I think that there was a growing realization in corporate America that you couldn't simply opt out of the conversation, that silence was complicity and you had to say something. And I think the advice that we were giving over and over again is whatever you say should be backed up by actions in terms of what you're doing within the walls of your company, but also how you're giving. And I think that that's carrying over to this past week across a broad spectrum of companies.

VANEK SMITH: What was it about that moment, I guess, that caused this shift? Because all these companies, I mean, there were the ones like Nike, which, you know, made a lot of sense given, like, Colin Kaepernick and things like that. But also, there were brands like, I remember Gushers fruit snacks. You know, they came out with the statement and everybody kind of chuckled about it. But, you know, they came out saying, like, we support Black Lives Matter. Like, this company wouldn't be what it is without Black consumers and workers. I mean, it seemed like all these companies were all kind of stepping out in a way that, at least to me, it seemed like a new like a new thing.

NEWMAN: Absolutely. And I'd like to start with a positive and believe that there was a genuine desire to create change. And so I still - all these years in the business world and I still start with optimism there.

VANEK SMITH: That's nice. No, that's a good thing. I feel like you'd know. I'm very glad to hear that the world of business is not always - it can be a little cynical. But yes, please continue.

NEWMAN: And I don't think that's the only reason. I mean, I think that it's also a direct reflection of the political views of the leadership. And then the third thing, which is really important and should not be underestimated is the power of employees to put pressure on a company to use their influence. And there's a talent war going on. And when the real heart of a company, a talent of the company, raises its voice in unison, management oftentimes reacts to that. And then the last reason I'll talk about it is people's ability to really search and know how companies are behaving and how they're donating. And businesses are aware of that. And I think that the last point, businesses knowing that people are paying attention, is driving a lot of the behavior we've seen most recently in the past week.

VANEK SMITH: Were you surprised to see so many companies kind of speaking up in the last, I guess, week or so? Like, did it surprise you to see so many companies kind of coming out with statements?

NEWMAN: It did surprise me. And it surprised me to see a lot of companies that I would view as more conservative actually using their influence to make a stand.

VANEK SMITH: Why do you think those companies did that?

NEWMAN: Well, in a lot of cases, I feel like companies were doing it out of a business need. You know, Wall Street loves stability. And what we saw this past week was the opposite of stability. And so I think that in a lot of ways, these companies felt like they were protecting our democracy. And then I also believe in a little bit of a government leadership vacuum that there's a greater responsibility on corporate America to just stand up and take a stand when they see something is not right.

VANEK SMITH: I've seen this term getting thrown around in recent days called woke washing. Do you think that's part of what's going on is that companies are like, uh-oh, I want to be on the right side of this thing?

NEWMAN: I definitely think there's a - there's quite a bit of that. I think that there is a desire to be on the right side of history. But in more cases than not, I just feel like we've seen something totally unprecedented, and companies feel like a sense of responsibility to take a stand.

VANEK SMITH: You really think that? I mean, you know, I've covered a lot of companies for years and years. And I don't - I generally don't think the big companies are evil. But I also generally think that what they're looking out for are their own profits, the interests of their shareholders, things like that. That does not always jive with human rights, you know, like workers' rights, things like that. I mean, often companies, corporate interests are at odds with political movements, social movements, things like that. But, you know, am I being too cynical?

NEWMAN: No, I agree that, you know, when those things are clearly at odds, companies will tend to take the path of most profit. But in this case, companies generally wanted to regain stability and they felt license to speak out against those forces that were causing instability. And so in this case, this stand was pretty much in concert with long-term profit goals.

VANEK SMITH: Lee, thank you so much for talking with us.

NEWMAN: Oh, it's been my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Dave Blanchard. It was fact-checked by Sean Saldana. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

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