Opinion: Business Leaders Need the Tools to Defend Against the Woke Mob
By Jack Kalavritinos and Derrick Hollie | Tuesday, 08 June 2021 11:59 AM
If the current trajectory of the woke culture is any indication, the pressure on companies to take left-wing positions on political issues isn’t going away.
For America’s business leaders, the question shouldn’t be “how long must we ride out the storm?” The question now is “are we ready for the moment when the mob turns against my organization?”
For years, the left has cleverly placed issues like climate change, racial equity, and gun control under the umbrellas of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) and “environmental, social and governance” (ESG).
Activists are now becoming more aggressive in trying to enlist companies as foot soldiers in their efforts to transform society.
Earlier this month, a green activist investment fund called Engine No. 1 pushed three of their preferred candidates onto ExxonMobil’s board of directors, despite owning just 0.02% of the company’s shares. Other activist-minded companies are outright shunning businesses from certain economic sectors.
Last year the North Face refused to fulfill a custom apparel order from oil and gas company Innovex Downhole Solutions. Never mind that the CEO of Liberty Oil and Gas, in a public relations riposte on behalf of the industry, couldn’t find a single product on the North Face website which didn’t rely on oil or gas in some way.
Some companies have tried to dance to the woke tune in order to be spared punishment in the court of left-wing opinion – as Delta and Coca-Cola did when hitching their wagons to unfounded left-wing criticism of Georgia’s voter ID law. But lurching to the left under pressure has its own drawbacks.
For one thing, it has the potential to alienate employees, suppliers, and other partners. Commentators like Chris Rufo have exposed internal diversity training at places like Disney and Lockheed-Martin that is outright racist in shaming trainees for being white, among other attributes.
Are executives sure that these kind of initiatives aren’t repelling talented employees from joining their ranks? Are executives sure that the growing number of minorities who don’t vote Democrat aren’t being repelled by what they perceive as white paternalism in corporate diversity initiatives?
Companies embracing wokeism also risk alienating conservative and moderate shareholders and consumers, who are equally turning up the heat in response to corporate America’s genuflections to political correctness.
Justin Danhof, the Director of the Free Enterprise Project (FEP) has consistently asked tough questions of corporate leaders at shareholder meetings on climate change, race and gun rights. The FEP also files shareholder resolutions, engages CEOs and board members at shareholder meetings, and petitions the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Other legal efforts, like a business advocacy group suing Major League Baseball for $100 billion in damages to local business and $1 billion in punitive damages for moving the All-Star Game from Georgia are sure to become commonplace, as well.
Another sizeable risk for corporate executives who surrender to woke bullying was clear at a Senate hearing last month.
Senator Tim Scott asked a group of banking CEOs to highlight what made the Georgia voting law so discriminatory. The awkward 14 seconds of silence – a total inability or unwillingness to answer – was a public relations black eye. The CEOs looked foolish or uninformed – something they would never tolerate of themselves on an earnings call. Business leaders entrusted with billion-dollar budgets lose credibility and revenue when they don’t know the facts surrounding decisions that generate enormous PR coverage – positive or negative. Executives need to think about reputational costs of going woke in the same way they would the costs of corporate tax increases, workforce shortfalls, or regulatory actions.
So what to do? First of all, executives must know the facts – or non-facts – of what their opponents are claiming.
One of the ways opponents of the Georgia bill sold their position to CEOs was to claim bill proponents simply wanted to suppress votes by denying water to thirsty voters stuck in long lines, when in fact the bill prohibits partisan political organizations from giving away food and drink as a means of influencing votes.
Corporate condemnation of the Georgia voting rights law helped galvanize momentum for MLB to move the All-Star game from Atlanta.
Did Delta and Coca-Cola know that the relocation would rob black-owned businesses in Atlanta of revenue they were counting on? Did they know that they helped disrupt baseball’s planned ceremony to honor Hall of Famer Hank Aaron in the very city where the spent the bulk of his career? The facts matter.
Second, there’s strength in numbers. Organizations like Back to Neutral have rallied scores of business and policy and communications leaders who understand the danger the woke movement poses to American freedoms and free enterprise, and that new tactics are necessary to help realign America’s corporate values back toward a healthy center that accommodates disagreement. More coalescing needs to happen.
Finally, resistance to left-wing pressures is always appropriate, as long as it’s coupled with the proper tone.
Companies under fire would be well-suited to refuse to rush to judgment, consult with stakeholders beyond the squeaky woke wheels demanding politically correct grease, and ultimately craft careful messages that add value to their business and protect their reputation.
No matter what political side of a hot-button issue executives come down on, a message can always be tailored to take the other side into account and minimize blowback.
By being thorough, reasonable, and deliberative, business leaders can avoid taking unnecessarily partisan positions and steer clear of alienating those who are most important to their companies.
With the right strategies and some courage, blue chip multinationals and local mom and pop enterprises alike can navigate the woke waters. Indeed, they will have to, because calmer seas don’t seem to be on the horizon.
Jack Kalavritinos is the Founder and President of JK Strategies, a communications consulting firm. He formerly served as director for Intergovernmental and External Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under Secretary Alex Azar.
Derrick Hollie is a senior advisor at JK Strategies and the President of Reaching America, a 501(c)(4) organization developed to address complex social issues impacting African American communities today.