By Leandra Bernstein
WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The protests against lawmakers and politicians were an expected response to the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. What was less anticipated was the degree to which businesses would be caught in the crossfire and forced to take a stand on gun control.
Since last week, dozens of companies have announced they are severing ties with the National Rifle Association, the most influential gun lobbying group in the country. Other companies have taken proactive steps to control the sale of firearms in their stores. Still others are resisting social media pressure to change their business associations.
Consumer activism and calls for boycotts following the February 14th massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have demonstrated what many businesses have come to realize in recent years, that in an increasingly volatile and divisive political climate, they have to take a stand.
This week Delta Airlines was the first company to feel the recoil of its decision to stand against the NRA. Delta announced over the weekend that it would no longer provide NRA members a special discounted rate. United Airlines issued a similar statement.
Delta is reaching out to the NRA to let them know we will be ending their contract for discounted rates through our group travel program. We will be requesting that the NRA remove our information from their website.— Delta (@Delta) February 24, 2018
Delta likely did not anticipate the recoil. Georgia's Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle promised to "kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA."
Delta, headquartered in Atlanta and one of Georgia's largest employers, was reportedly on the verge of convincing state lawmakers to approve a piece of legislation to cut taxes on jet fuel. As a result of its position on gun control and backlash from the NRA, Delta may lose millions of dollars in tax breaks.
Other companies have chosen to stay silent, balancing their relationship with the NRA on one hand with the demands of activists and potential boycotters on the other.
Most notably, Apple, Amazon and FedEx have not cut ties with the NRA, despite the outcry on social media to #BoycottNRA.
In a statement on Tuesday, FedEx defended their decision. While acknowledging their own beliefs in the Second Amendment and support for background checks and school safety, the company announced they would continue providing NRA members special pricing benefits.
"FedEx is a common carrier under Federal law and therefore does not and will not deny service or discriminate against any legal entity regardless of their policy positions or political views," the company said. "FedEx has never set or changed rates for any of our millions of customers around the world in response to their politics, beliefs or positions on issues."
Apple and Amazon have not yet made public comments.
Celebrities responded to the inaction by the tech giants and mail carrier by issuing a call for a 24-hour boycott of all three companies on March 1.
THURSDAY!— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) February 27, 2018
We are calling for a one-day boycott of @amazon @appletv @fedex. Pass it on.
As consumers we are demanding these companies sever ties with the @NRA. #march1NRABoycott #BoycottNRA #Enough pic.twitter.com/sQ61m7jnTd
"This is a very polarizing issue with lots to lose and lots of money on both sides," said Dr. Melissa Dodd, who specializes in corporate activism at the University of Central Florida. The 24-hour boycott on Apple, Amazon and FedEx and the threats of consumer boycotts against pro-NRA brands will be a proving ground, she added. "This is going to be one of the issues that really demonstrates how effective corporate activism is."
It also underscores the new reality of doing business in the 21st, that CEOs and strategic communicators have to be prepared to weigh in on controversial issues in politics and society.
According to a recent study by Sprout Social, a social media and analytics management firm, two-thirds, 66 percent, of consumers believe it's important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues. "As it turns out, brands have more to lose in silence than in speaking out," the study concluded.
In the gun debate, Delta, FedEx, Apple, Amazon and other companies are facing the new reality of business, that they have to take a stand.
"There is an expectation by the majority of the American public that companies will engage in these controversial social-political issues," Dodd noted. "Now the questions that a lot of strategic communicators and companies are dealing is how best to take a stance....the question is no longer if, but when and why and on what issues."
Other social issues have been somewhat easier for companies to navigate because they have been largely one-sided, or popular sentiment is clearly on one side over another. For example, there was not a strong counterweight to environmental activists who called for the boycott of BP after the 2010 oil spill.
In the case of activists demands for companies to take a firm stance on the NRA and gun control, it is a two-sided boycott. One side is highly mobilized and passionate now, but the other side has been consistently organized and activated for decades.
According to Maurice Schweitzer, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business, these companies are having to balance the intensity of the current activism around gun control against possible long-term effects of taking a stand on the issue.
"Part of the calculus for these companies is, there's a large majority of people in the country that would like to see greater restrictions on access to guns and in the present moment they are very activated," Schweitzer said.
Looking back over time, even at moments that seemed likely to be turning points, like Sandy Hook or the Las Vegas shooting, the enthusiasm of the majority tends to wane, but the intensity of a vocal minority that has advocated consistently for wider access to guns stays the same.
The NRA has 5 million members, it's well-organized and it has been around for generations, Schweitzer explained. "After a few months, the NRA remains the energized organized, activated group and the larger majority has moved on to some other disparate set of concerns."
DO BOYCOTTS REALLY WORK?
Whether or not the gun control boycott will be effective has everything to do with whether the vocal majority stays mobilized.
Schweitzer noted, "Unless there is sustained outrage, people's attention shifts somewhere else." While the majority of the public has remained passionate about gun control for the past two weeks, past experience suggests it is likely that only a small minority will sustain that outrage over time to punish companies whose stance on gun violence misaligned with theirs.
"In general boycotts don't work," Schweitzer added. "They don't work because people lack the persistence to maintain a course of action over time."
In her own research, Dodd has found that the unwanted attention around a boycott does have at least a temporary impact on the brand's reputation. In looking at the impact of boycotts or buycotts across multiple issues and dozens of companies "there is an impact on the company's bottom line" Dodd asserted.
"We find that, at a minimum, it does affect the reputation of the company," she explained. Over the long-term, the impact on the company's earnings is more difficult to track.
In the current environment, businesses have to be as attentive not only to the public profile of their own company but to the company they keep. With social media, activists have the resources and tools to mobilize thousands or even millions of angry consumers.
"Politics seems pretty inescapable now," said Jerry Davis, the Associate Dean for Business at Michigan University's Ross School of Business. "Companies are now put in positions where they can't escape, they need to make a choice."
"Because of social media, what companies do is visible and to what extent people are massing for or against them is also visible in a way it wouldn't have been five or ten years ago," Davis said. "To the extent that social media isn't just clicktivism or slacktivism, but genuinely indicates a lot of people feel this way and are going to act, then that becomes very powerful."
A number of companies have proactively taken a stance on gun control. Most recently, Dick's Sporting Goods announced they would impose an age restriction on the sale of firearms, and no longer sell to individuals under 21 years old. Walmart announced they would stop selling the AR-15 rifle used by the suspect in the Parkland shooting.
In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, WalMart and Cabela's announced they would no longer sell bump-stocks, a device that allowed the shooter to essentially outfit his rifle to act as a fully automatic weapon.
"This idea that WalMart is somehow a social justice warrior would have seemed inconceivable even five years ago," Davis noted. "And yet that's where we are."
Dodd said that the decision from WalMart, Dick's and others to preempt legislative action on gun control and take the controversial products off their shelves was the right move from a branding perspective. "The research says, the earlier you take the stance the better," she said. "The second part is to make it core to your company's values."
In the past, businesses could generally keep their heads down, focus on making a profit and avoid being caught up in the riptides of social and political issues. In 1970, economist Milton Friedman summarized the sentiments about corporate activism at the time saying companies had "one and only one social responsibility" to play by the rules and increase profits. Today, the rules have changed.
Consumers and employees increasingly want to associate with a brand that reflects their values, whether it's making sure the airline they fly supports gun control, the restaurant they go to stands for diversity, or the clothes they wear protect the environment.
The challenge for companies is how to meet those expectations and satisfy everyone. In the case of taking a stand on gun control or gun rights, there is no easy answer.