Presidential hopeful Eric Swalwell threw his support behind an economic boycott of Georgia over its new and more restrictive abortion law during a CNN town hall event Sunday night. Then the Democratic congressman from California took it a step further, suggesting that the cable news network might want to leave its Atlanta headquarters if the measure takes effect.
The legislation sparked a national outcry and prompted three major entertainment companies to cast doubts on their ability to continue doing business in the state. The law prohibits abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which typically occurs near the six-week mark and before many women know they are pregnant. More than a dozen states have adopted or are moving toward similar limits in the march to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
Although other Georgia-based companies say they are under some pressure to respond to the law, business experts and industry insiders say it’s doubtful that any of them would undergo the financial and logistical strain of moving out of state. They also question whether an economic boycott would realize its intended effect.
The issue came up Sunday when Swalwell said he, if elected, would nominate to the Supreme Court only judges who would uphold Roe v. Wade. In a followup question, CNN’s Jim Sciutto noted that several film and TV studios, including WarnerMedia, Disney and Netflix, have warned they might suspend future production in Georgia if the abortion law survives a legal challenge and takes effect Jan. 1.
“Do you support that kind of economic boycott?” Sciutto asked.
"If that law goes into effect, I absolutely do. And CNN may have to move — there’s a lot of young women who work for CNN who could be affected,” Swalwell said to a round of applause from the audience.
Georgia has been the home of CNN since 1980, when Ted Turner founded the first 24-hour all-news cable network. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But last week, its parent company, WarnerMedia, said that “if the new law holds we will reconsider Georgia as the home to any new productions."
Disney chief executive Robert Iger took a similar stance, telling Reuters last week that he doubted the studio would continue filming in Georgia if the law takes effect. Meanwhile, a top Netflix executive said the streaming giant would partner with various groups to challenge the legislation in court.
Still, it’s one thing for companies to float the idea of leaving and quite another to do so. The advantages of filming in Georgia have grown exponentially in recent years, as a result of the state’s generous tax incentives and vast entertainment infrastructure. Plus, Hollywood productions are planned months in advance, which would make it tricky for studios to make a hard exit.
Besides, there are other ways for companies to make a statement, experts say. That’s especially true when customers expect their brands to take a public stance on social issues, be it abortion or immigration or race relations.
Atlanta-based UPS has not issued a policy statement about the abortion law, saying its employees have the right to express their own views. “UPS aligns its policies with the law,” said Glenn Zaccara, director of corporate media relations for the shipper. “We encourage our employees to be involved in the political process so that their interests and beliefs are reflected in the laws enacted by their elected representatives.”
Home Depot adopted a similar view. “We think it’s a very personal issue to the individual, so we don’t see it as our place to weigh in on this,” a spokesman for the Georgia-based retailer said.
Delta Air Lines declined to comment, and Coca-Cola, also based in Atlanta, did not respond to a request for comment.
Georgia-based companies will be “caught flat-footed” if they haven’t already clearly responded to the abortion measure, said Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser. Even when it isn’t practical for businesses to uproot their operations, they still have to examine how they provide necessary health care to their female employees or boost their lobbying efforts around abortion access.
Companies will have to respond quickly, “because it’s not even a choice to support female employees, their human rights, their health and their safety,” Johndrow said. “It’s a bit of a communication exercise, but it’s also an internal policy exercise.”
There isn’t a playbook for how companies deal with pressing social and political issues such as immigration or the government shutdown earlier this year, said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for Weber Shandwick. What is clear is that employees expect a response, so it’s important for bosses to monitor how workers are engaging on issues such as Georgia’s abortion legislation and be prepared to act quickly.
“What are employees talking about? Is this already reaching the water cooler or online?” Gaines-Ross said. “You should be really sensitive, keep your radar really alert in terms of how employees or even customers are speaking out on these issues.”
Although companies in the state might seem to have little political sway over legislation that has been signed into law, other controversial policies have crumbled under pressure from the business community.
In 2016, North Carolina legislators passed a measure that would have restricted which public restrooms transgender people could use, igniting a backlash that threatened the economic prospects of the state. American Airlines, Wells Fargo and the National Basketball Association were among the brands that raised concerns about the “bathroom law,” which LGBTQ rights groups condemned as discriminatory and the most extreme of its kind in the country. The state eventually reversed course and enacted a new law after months of opposition.
Had the measure remained intact, it would have cost North Carolina more than $3.76 billion over 12 years, from forgone business development to canceled events, according to an analysis compiled by the Associated Press.