The corporate face of activism

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Some companies are reinterpreting their role in society and coming out in support of causes. The genuine ones rely on consistency, plausibility and authenticity

In a historic decision in June, the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage across all of the US. Just four weeks earlier, Ireland had become the first country to endorse gay marriage by popular vote. While less pronounced (though not entirely absent) in Ireland, the movement toward marriage equality in the US was driven perhaps decisively by what some would see as an unlikely ally: business. Some of the country’s most recognised consumer brands such as Starbucks, Google and Microsoft, and some smaller, but well-known progressive companies, such as Ben & Jerry’s, were unusually vocal in throwing their support behind the cause and may have played an important role in swaying public opinion on the issue.

Perhaps most prominently, the Seattle-based coffee chain Starbucks has advocated publicly for gay marriage legislation in Washington State. Its efforts were applauded by the Human Rights Campaign, the US’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organisation, and condemned by gay marriage opponents, who launched the ‘Dump Starbucks’ campaign in response. Starbucks remained steadfast despite the controversy, commenting that the company has “a lengthy history of leading and supporting policies that promote equality and inclusion… It is core to who we are and what we value as a company.’’

Corporate political advocacy

There is nothing particularly new about businesses supporting social causes. Business has a long history of social engagement. Under the umbrella term of corporate social responsibility (CSR), business has developed some sophisticated programmes to do so, for example through charitable engagement or cause-related marketing strategies. We are used also to businesses pursuing political strategies and influencing the political process. Businesses have lobbied governments and legislators as long as they have existed.

However, what seems rather uncommon is the combination of the two – that is, the use of pronouncedly political strategies for the promotion of social causes. Pro-social engagement on the one hand and political activity on the other are thus the core ingredients of this rather new phenomenon we call “corporate political advocacy”.

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Corporate political advocacy as it is manifested, for example, by corporate engagement for gay rights is not to be misunderstood as a kind of lobbying. Lobbying in a classic sense aims at influencing and shaping government policies for the sake of advancing company or industry interests. Thus, lobbying strategies target formal political processes and institutions; furthermore, they are aligned with the core business of a company and directly linked to their financial interests.

Corporate political advocacy, by contrast, takes place outside of formal political channels. It is predominantly aimed at shaping public discourse rather than influencing policy directly. Its purpose is to advance social rather than economic causes, and public rather than corporate interest. Thus, while classical lobbying represents a private political strategy with corporate self-interest as a driving force, corporate political advocacy is a public political strategy that requires public-mindedness as a basic underlying attitude.

But why would it be the business of business to weigh in on public debates on issues such as gay marriage? Companies that have taken a stand on marriage equality have been quick to provide an answer: successful businesses depend on a diverse labour pool. They can be competitive only if they have access to the most talented and well-qualified people. Thus, they strive for environments and communities that are attractive and welcoming to all.

For some companies, the story ends there. But for those companies that deserve to be called advocates in the true sense of the word, it is not the economic argument, but their foundational values, that provide the main impetus for their engagement. For such companies, corporate political advocacy is nothing less than an expression of their identity as a social institution.

Advocacy as social responsibility

While some have questioned the legitimacy of corporate political advocacy, I would argue that it might be a part of an organisation’s corporate responsibility. The key to seeing corporate political advocacy as a part of CSR is to shift our focus from activities to values. Conventional accounts of CSR squarely focus on corporate activities and their resulting social impact. Responsibility, then, is defined by minimising harm or maximising social good.

A value-based perspective, however, understands CSR as embedded in and expressed through corporate character and culture. Activity-based CSR often remains piecemeal and fragmentary. A perspective on corporate character, on the other hand, centres on the inherent integrity of the company. A view on corporate integrity, in turn, does not isolate what it does from what it is or represents; it focuses on the consistency between activities and values and between the values that are stated and the ones that are lived in the organisation.

Integrity, thus understood, denotes what the company stands for; and standing for one’s foundational values literally means to take a stand for them when they are threatened. This holds toward the inside as well as toward the outside: a company that vows to stand for certain foundational values on the inside cannot express indifference about those same values toward the outside – especially when such values are under immediate threat.

For example, a company which values equality and non-discrimination as part of its very character and identity surely cannot remain silent in the face of blatant and systematic racism within its immediate environment (and potentially against its own employees), without compromising its commitment to these values and, hence, its very integrity. According to such reasoning, there are circumstances under which the organisation’s sense of integrity and responsibility should prompt companies to advocate for certain values when they are acutely endangered.

The increase in corporate political advocacy can be viewed as a symptom of an underlying general trend toward an increased importance of values in business. Consumers, potential employees, investors, and even communities, increasingly look for identification with what a company represents and stands for, rather than to only judge it by its financial performance. Within this development, corporate political advocacy may come to play an increasingly significant role in signalling values to such identification groups.

The bottom line of this is not that corporate advocacy may lead to heightened customer loyalty, a better reputation, more loyal employees, and thus growing profits. Arguing along these lines means being stuck in the old paradigm of value-singularism, rather than pluralism, in business. The point is that it will lead to more viable and more sustainable organisations, understood as genuinely and deeply embedded within their respective communities and with increasingly fluid boundaries to different stakeholder groups.

Not everyone’s business

Managers who are confronted with questions of political advocacy arguably face a thorny issue with potentially significant implications for the company as a whole. How should they decide whether to publicly take a stand? Three criteria should be sincerely assessed before a company decides to throw its weight behind a specific cause: consistency, plausibility, and authenticity (see below). These are the cornerstones of a company’s integrity and thus of any legitimate advocacy campaign.

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The surge of companies that have publicly taken a stand on marriage equality and other social issues in recent months and years may be indicative of a corporate world in the process of a profound reinterpretation of its own role and place in society.

However, there is a fine line between genuine concern and mere window dressing. While many companies have jumped on the bandwagon in supporting marriage equality, only a select few of them are consistent, plausible, and authentic in their efforts. It is possible that they will remain anomalies in a sea of inward-looking companies. But maybe, just maybe, they will enter history as leading the path into a different era of corporate social engagement.

Florian Wettstein is professor and director of the Institute for Business Ethics at the University of St. Gallen. He is the author of Multinational Corporations and Global Justice: Human Rights Obligations of a Quasi-Governmental Institution

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