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Government & Law

Brands’ Advocacy Dilemma: When to Weigh in on Tough Conversations

Texas' laws often force companies to balance public opinion, social pressure, employee voice, and the bottom line when taking a stance.
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Brands’ Advocacy Dilemma: When to Weigh in on Tough Conversations

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The past couple of years have demonstrated the power of Texas’ largest employers. About once a session, ordinarily pro-business legislators and political leaders advocate for laws and executive orders that threaten the bottom line, forcing employers to throw their weight around and quash the new rules.

While employers are no strangers to advocacy, knowing exactly when to make a statement, Instagram post, or sign a letter to the governor is no easy task. Companies have to toe the line between the thoughts and opinions of investors, leaders, employees, the public, all while thinking about staying in business. So how do they make their decision?

In 2017, Texas’ infamous bathroom bill looked to restrict access to bathrooms for transgender individuals. After much debate, many of Texas’ largest employers sent a letter to Governor Abbott protesting the bill. The letter expressed the companies’ desire to embrace diversity and discussed how the law would attract and retain talent.

It was signed by Randall Stephenson of AT&T, Doug Parker of American Airlines, Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines, Kim Cocklin of Atmos Energy, Matthew Rose of BNSF Railway, Mark Rohr of Celanese, Harlan Crow of Crow Holdings, Sean Donohue of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Emmitt Smith of EJ Smith Enterprises, Fred Perpall of the Beck Group, David Seaton of Fluor, Thomas Falk of Kimberly-Clark, Trevor Fetter of Tenet Healthcare and Richard Templeton of Texas Instruments, the Dallas Morning News reported. IBM also took out a full-page ad in Texas newspapers protesting the bill. 

The bill never made it to the governor’s desk. 

This year, Governor Abbott’s executive order banning vaccine mandates has caused a stir amongst employers. While the order was meant to protect the right of employees who didn’t want to be vaccinated, critics called it an infringement on private business.

In North Texas, hospital systems never changed their vaccine mandates despite the reason that they just have not voiced their opinion, quite as much as because, you know, there’s like, oh my gosh, like, I don’t want to talk about women’s rights and abortions like, like maybe there. It’s just it’s such a taboo business. It’s such a taboo topic, order.

A matching bill died in the legislature after several large employer groups again weighed in against the bill. They wrote a letter in opposition to the Texas Senate version of the bill, SB 51. Signatories included the Dallas Regional Chamber, Texas Realtors, the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Hotel, and Lodging Association, and several other chambers of commerce. “We believe strongly that legislation of this kind represents an unprecedented intrusion into the liberty of employers to operate their businesses as they see fit.

Texas’ thriving business climate is premised upon this fundamental liberty, but this legislation undermines it by placing employers in an impossible position between federal and state mandates,” the letter reads.

This year, the Texas legislature passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, but there hasn’t been mass corporate resistance this time around. Dallas-based Match Group’s CEO Shar Dubey said she is personally setting up a fund to help any employees seeking abortion care outside of Texas, but the largest employers have stayed silent for the most part. So what is the difference?

One significant issue is comfort discussing the issue, says Heather Capps, CEO of marketing and communications company HCK2 partners.

“If you are looking here in [the region], business ownership is dominated by males,” she says. “The reason that they have not voiced their opinion quite as much is because they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to talk about women’s rights and abortions.’ It’s such a taboo topic.” 

Another factor is public opinion. Texans were not convinced of the importance of the bathroom bill, but only 37 percent of Texans felt that abortion bills should be less restrictive than they are now, the Texas Tribune reports. Wading into that gray area can be a risk not worth taking, especially in Texas.

“I could never on my personal LinkedIn profile or any of my own social profiles, or especially on behalf of HCK2, ever choose a particular side of the aisle,” Capps says. “I want to be respectful of my clients and whatever their personal opinions are.”

A more direct tie to the bottom line could also be a factor. The bathroom bill could have led to construction costs and new bathrooms for transgender customers or clients. The direct costs may not be as acute for other issues, so companies have less incentive to speak out. 

Companies also have to be wary of making a statement they can’t back up with action. In today’s world, a company espousing platitudes without making changes could face backlash.

“Don’t say it if that’s not who you are, and you can’t uphold that 365 days a year,” Capps says. “You run the risk of people accusing you of virtue signaling for the day.”

These days, public-facing corporations are trying to do the impossible: please everyone. A stance on one side is bound to alienate the other side, but not taking a stance at certain times could be worse.

“I don’t think in my 25-year history in business I have ever seen a time where companies’ public persona, opinions, and advocacy for this, that, or the other is more heightened than it has ever been right now,” Capps says. “It’s a challenging situation to be in right now.”