In the aftermath of the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Fla., many corporations made memorable statements about a long-simmering social issue that yet again exploded into the news.
Retailers like Wal-Mart and Dick's Sporting Goods said they would stop selling guns to customers under 21. Some travel industry companies said they would end discounts for National Rifle Association members, most notably Delta Air Lines, which earned them retaliation from Georgia legislators. And two days before Saturday's March for Our Lives event, Citigroup announced it would set restrictions on the sale of firearms by its business customers.
But Corporate America's response to the gun control discussion that erupted in the wake of the shooting was also notably different when compared to past events, according to a new analysis. A reputation research team at Weber Shandwick, the global public relations firm, has tracked corporate responses to six controversial moments in the past year -- events like President Trump's initial travel ban, his plan to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and his remarks following the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va.
The analysis, which scanned company statements and social-media platforms for keywords, found that fewer tech companies weighed in on gun control or the shooting than had spoken up over past events; that more companies pointed to their customers rather than corporate "values" as the reason they took action; and that fewer CEOs attached their names to the company's statement, issuing unsigned or more general remarks instead. (The team looked for more than just a retweet, a "favorite" or a "like;" instead, they included only companies or executives that added their own words to a post.)
For each of the first five controversies Weber-Shandwick tracked, tech companies were the most predominant industry on the list, at times making up 50 percent or more of responses. For instance, 21 of the 28 corporate responses about the transgender military ban, or 75 percent, came from tech companies. But in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting (Weber Shandwick tracked responses between Feb. 14 and March 23, the day before the march) tech came in third behind finance and retail, with just 16 percent of the responses.
Meanwhile, just 35 percent of the corporate responses about Parkland or the march were attributed to one of the company's leaders -- rather than being a general company statement -- while on each of the five other issues, the response came from the CEO, chairman or other individual leader at least 66 percent of the time.
"I think gun control and abortion are probably the two most radioactive topics there are in America," said Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick's chief reputation strategist. "CEOs have not 100 percent bought into the idea they should wade into these choppy waters -- particularly on an issue as contentious as gun control."
Retailers or finance companies may have weighed in more often than tech companies because they are more positioned to sell firearms or be associated with the transactions; fewer tech companies may also have had the NRA partnerships that seemed to force the hand of travel industry firms pushed by customers to end their discounts.
"It's a different issue with different political dynamics and a different economic footprint," said Aaron Chatterji, a professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business who has studied CEO activism. "Delta and Citigroup may have felt they could have leverage on this issue, but when it comes to diversity and immigration it may be a different set of companies that feel they can make an impact."
Technology companies may have been more inclined to speak up on the travel ban or the transgender military ban because of the workers they have in those countries or because they've touted diversity as one of their "values" and therefore employees will expect them to respond, said Anthony Johndrow, who leads a corporate reputation advisory firm.
"From a core business standpoint, immigration is a core value for them," Johndrow said. Unlike gun safety, which is not as directly tied to their business, "they have to get out ahead of it."
Some companies may also be cautious about appearing as if they're exploiting the news. Gaines-Ross's firm has shown in past research that it is riskier for companies to speak up on social issues when it can't be directly linked to their business or bottom line. More employees may be expecting CEOs to take a stand on social issues, but a 2016 survey also showed that people can be skeptical when they do, thinking CEOs may just be trying to get media attention or build their reputations.
The survey showed that while people do see CEOs as more favorable for taking a stand on hotly debated issues, the trend flipped if the topic was unrelated to the company's business, and more people had an unfavorable view of the CEO. (Remember Starbucks' #RaceTogether campaign?) "I think this tragedy was not something anyone wanted to have fingers pointed at them, looking opportunistic," Gaines-Ross said.
There may also be a level of fatigue that's set in, where companies don't feel like they can -- or should -- pull out the megaphone every time a hot-button issue flares up in the news.
"Companies may be realizing they can’t roll out the trumpets and go nuts after everything," Johndrow said, and saying "let’s take a pause here. Should we have a public stance on everything?"