President Trump dined with business leaders Tuesday night, welcoming several chief executives who were once part of presidential advisory councils that disbanded last year, an act that distanced them from the White House in the aftermath of Trump’s comments following the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., gathering of white nationalists and supremacists. But even if some of them may have called the violence “deplorable” or said they were “heartbroken” by it, most didn’t mention Trump by name.
That’s a good strategy, according to a report released this week by the survey researcher Morning Consult, which found that when brands or CEOs speak about Trump, whether in a positive or negative light, it’s far more likely to create backlash on one side than goodwill on the other.
The report found that when companies say something negative about Trump, 55 percent of Trump voters were much less likely to have a favorable view of the brand, while just 32 percent of Clinton voters have a more more favorable view. Making a positive statement about Trump was about as likely to aggravate Clinton voters, with 56 percent saying they’d be much less likely to have a favorable view. (The Morning Consult survey is an online survey in which respondents were not recruited through random sampling, meaning results may not be representative of the country as a whole.)
“No matter the position you take on Trump -- whether you oppose or support him, whatever -- you’ll appease one person but alienate two others,” said Jeff Cartwright, managing director of marketing and communications for Morning Consult. “Why we’re talking about this so much is Trump is so different from any other president we’ve had before -- it’s just created this incredible challenge for companies and brand leaders.”
What Cartwright says is getting so much discussion is the rise in political activism or commentary on social issues from corporate America. Once a relatively rare event, it’s now a commonplace part of corporate communications. Companies are wrestling with the always-on microphone of social media and more young consumers who expect companies to speak out. And of course, an administration whose policies on issues like immigration, climate change and transgender service members have been seen as running counter to many companies' stated values of diversity or sustainability goals.
Morning Consult’s results appear to find a stronger distaste for corporate activism among the public. Sixty percent of the national sample of 2,200 adults said corporations generally should not get involved in political or cultural matters, compared with just 22 percent who said they should use their influence. Younger consumers and liberal voters were somewhat more likely to want companies to get involved -- 36 percent of Gen Z respondents (ages 18 to 21), for example, said they wanted to hear from companies, while just 19 percent of Baby Boomers said the same.
A recent report by the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, meanwhile, found that -- when asked a different way -- consumers did want to see a CEO "speak out when their company’s values are violated or threatened,” with 81 percent of women and 74 percent of men agreeing with that statement.
Such divergent findings would appear to put CEOs in a bind. Consumers don’t like companies to get political, but they do want them to stand up for their “values” -- attributes like diversity and sustainability that companies increasingly tout, particularly when trying to attract new employees.
Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick, says that’s why companies should try to remain close to core business issues like a diverse workforce, climate change or immigration when speaking up about social issues.
“Does it have to do with your employees who are immigrants, or you’re an immigrant or you have employees stuck overseas?” she says. “It should be tied to your core business, as close as you can make that happen.”
Even though she believes CEO activism is here to stay -- “I do think business leaders have found their moral voice” -- she said she would not advise a company to mention the president’s name when making public comments.
Her firm has been tracking when companies mention the president or administration on different controversies, finding that about a third did so following the events in Charlottesville and 38 percent did in commentary about policies that separated families at the U.S. border -- but only one percent did in the gun control debate that erupted following the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“It’s risky and it’s politicizing an issue where it’s an opportunity to talk about what you stand for," she said, "what you think is right, what your corporate values are, your moral values.”
In a period of so much political divisiveness, there are times when brands may decide to make bets on being what Gaines-Ross calls “red or blue brands," believing the benefits of speaking out on one issue or another is worth the risk. But they need to be careful, warns Cartwright, who says “if you have to engage in social issues, make sure you understand which one will be a win for your target market.”
The Morning Consult report found that consumers respond more favorably when they learn about a company’s fair treatment of employees, U.S. production of goods or environmental responsibility. The least controversial issues companies can take on, it found, are civil rights, the rights of racial minorities and reforming the criminal justice system, while the biggest third rails were speaking out on abortion, Republican lawmakers' campaigns, or the right of protestors to kneel during the national anthem. Weber Shandwick’s report also indicated that abortion was the riskiest topic, while workplace issues -- job skills, equal pay, sexual harassment -- were safest.
“If you’re a head of corporate social responsibility and your’e wondering ‘how do I insert myself in this,’ don’t overthink doing good,” Cartwright said. “Keep it simple. Things like paying employees well, giving to charity -- if a company does that well, it will have a more favorable view.”