On Leadership | Analysis
March 6, 2018 at 1:04 PM
When Dick's Sporting Goods CEO Edward W. Stack took a stance after the Parkland, Fla., school massacre, most of the attention was on what his retail chain would stop doing: It would no longer sell assault weapons, no longer sell high-capacity magazines and no longer sell guns to customers under age 21.
But Stack's statement also was notable for what he said he wanted to see done, according to those who study how companies engage on social issues. His memo didn't just make a vague statement about the need for leaders in Washington to address the problem. Instead, he outlined specific measures that he thought gun legislation should cover, with a bulleted list that outlined several commonly cited measures for gun-control reform.
“We implore our elected officials to enact common sense gun reform and pass the following regulations,” Stack wrote. The memo called for banning assault-style firearms, raising the minimum age for gun purchases, banning high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, requiring universal background checks that include relevant mental-health data and "previous interactions with the law" requiring a database of prohibited buyers, and closing the private-sale and gun show loophole.
Stack runs a sporting-goods business that sells firearms, so some of those measures, were they to become law, would put his store's decisions in line with other retailers. But advisers on corporate brand issues said his explicit call for legislation also turned a page in the recent chapter of CEO activism, thanks to the particular nature of the gun-control debate and the evolution of corporate America's increasingly inextricable role on social issues.
“You don't normally hear a company articulate these things — they usually do it through lobbying support,” said Anthony Johndrow, a New York-based adviser to companies on corporate reputation.
He said even if the suggestions directly mirror policy requests from some gun-control advocacy groups, the list of policy requests feels like the next step for companies to take as more and more wade in on social issues, tying their brands to causes or issues that can be political hot buttons. "The first phase is just to state an opinion, the second phase is to take action at the company, and the third phase is maybe to call on the government to do something," he said.
Companies, of course, have long had their say on specific policies through lobbying and have weighed in publicly when they disagree on legislation or other action, such as President Trump's plan to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement or his position on young undocumented immigrants. More than 200 companies signed letters against North Carolina's HB2 law, often known as the state's “bathroom bill” for its policy about restroom use for transgender people in government buildings and public schools. They have at times signed an amicus brief in support of certain issues, such as same-sex marriage.
Still, those who follow the interaction between social issues and corporate activism said Stack's memo was notable for its inclusion of distinct solutions. While some of his suggestions are part of current bills or have even been mentioned by Trump, lawmakers are yet to come together around a single bill.
“In the past, the advocacy around an issue by the CEO or their leadership team may have been limited to participation in an amicus brief or inclusive HR policies,” said Chris Allieri, principal of communications at brand consultancy Mulberry & Astor. "This is not a time for companies to split hairs and craft carefully worded press statements."
Advisers and researchers who study the issue cite a couple of reasons CEOs may be more willing to follow Stack and make more-explicit proposals. One has to do with the issue of gun control itself and the students who've kept it in the news. With so much criticism about leaders issuing platitudes rather than making changes of substance, with the public following the issue so closely and with gun violence becoming a disturbingly serial focus of headlines, speaking out on the issue in general terms could come off as inauthentic.
“It's not enough to just release a statement — you have to be very specific, otherwise it could be like greenwashing,” said Aaron Chatterji, an associate professor of business and public policy at Duke University, using a term that describes when brands present themselves as environmentally responsible when they're not.
Meanwhile, as CEOs increasingly speak out on social issues, people may be expecting more from them than a simple tweet about an issue or a vaguely worded statement. Chatterji recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times where he wrote that “there is no going back” and that brands are likely to segment even more into being identified with conservative or liberal demographics. As a result, he thinks an evolution could be happening where people expect more from what's in those corporate statements, too. “That specificity is going to raise the bar for future CEO activists,” he said. “People are going to ask the follow-up questions.”
Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic and an instructor at Harvard Business School, said more could follow Stack's lead.
“This is very different than sending your lobbyists in to get favorable treatment — this is about their mission and their purpose. I see it as a totally different approach," he said. "What's happening is CEOs today are recognizing that Congress is stalemated over many issues. They're doing it on behalf of their employees and their customers, and that's a big statement.”