But Stephenson is almost certainly the first to find himself in that role while the president of the United States made a political speech at a Boy Scout event at a time when his company faces a Justice Department antitrust review. AT&T is awaiting word on its proposed $85 billion takeover of Time Warner — putting Stephenson in a potentially difficult scenario as many parents and former Boy Scouts have called for an apology about Trump's speech.
That's partly, of course, because there has never been a speech to the Boy Scouts from a sitting president like Trump's in West Virginia on Monday. He touted his election win to thousands of applauding preteens and teenagers in attendance, bragging about “the incredible night with the maps,” when “we won and won.” He threatened to fire his Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price if he didn't get needed votes to repeal Obamacare, questioned why President Barack Obama hadn't attended the jamboree event (he appeared in videotaped remarks) and called the nation's capital a “cesspool” despite saying, “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I'm in front of the Boy Scouts?”
The next day, a groundswell of parents and former Boy Scouts called out the organization for the content of Trump's speech, flooding its Facebook page with thousands of fiery comments, many demanding an apology. One parent of an Eagle Scout called the speech a “deeply offensive disaster which must be repudiated by the BSA” on Facebook; another said "I feel I can no longer trust BSA leadership to make choices with integrity" and that she could not "in good conscience, argue for my son, a Boy Scout, to adhere to the code if the leaders of the organization cannot even follow it." One tweeted that "my boycott has already begun. My sons were withdrawn this morning. Disgusting."
A number of Twitter users pointed out Stephenson's role as CEO of a company that has a merger awaiting approval and called for boycotts of the telecommunications giant. ("Time to change my phone carrier and cable provider," one user tweeted. A social media account for Verizon Wireless responded.)
The uproar is a particularly volatile example of a fundamentally new era, one in which polarization and social media help ensnare CEOs in political flash points, often prompting boycotts from customers. Leading the Boy Scouts, in different times, would hardly seem to have been a risk.
Statements made by the Boy Scouts of America did not explicitly address the content of Trump's speech, and Stephenson did not appear to have publicly commented on the backlash himself as of Wednesday afternoon. A spokesman for AT&T, which announced its quarterly earnings on Tuesday, declined to comment, or referred questions to the BSA.
The Boy Scouts, in a statement released Monday, said the organization was “wholly non-partisan and does not promote any one position, product, service, political candidate or philosophy. The invitation for the sitting U.S. president to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition and is in no way an endorsement of any political party or specific policies.”
A version of that statement, posted Tuesday afternoon on the organization's blog, said the invitation to the president is made “out of respect for the Office of the President of the United States” and “we will continue to be respectful of the wide variety of viewpoints in this country.”
The political speech was not only out of step with tradition; it appeared to violate the “rules and regulations” document on the Boy Scouts' website, which says that “the Boy Scouts of America must not, through its governing body or through any of its officers, chartered councils, Scouters, or members, involve Scouting in political matters.” Through a media email address on its website, the BSA did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump blasted the AT&T-Time Warner merger, saying his administration would not approve the deal “because it's too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” Since then, a report in the New York Times suggested White House advisers have discussed the merger as a potential point of leverage over CNN, which is owned by Time Warner and is frequently the target of Trump's ire.
Stephenson praised Trump's tax plan in January, soon after the inauguration, and has said that AT&T would increase its capital investment in the United States if there was “some form of tax reform.” In June, Trump praised Stephenson for doing "really a top job" leading AT&T.
In the past, Stephenson has not hesitated to make public comments on issues, speaking bluntly following the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte. “Tolerance is for cowards,” Stephenson said at a 2016 company event, noting that “when a person struggling with what's been broadcast on our airwaves says, 'Black lives matter,' we should not say 'All lives matter' to justify ignoring the real need for change.”
Since 1998, at least three executives related to AT&T have held the national president title for the Boy Scouts. In addition to Stephenson, Edward Whitacre Jr., the former General Motors CEO and former AT&T CEO, as well as Wayne Perry, an executive with two wireless companies that merged with AT&T Wireless, have both held the role.