Companies are finding it increasingly difficult to stay on the sidelines of the nation’s social and political debates after a year of intense protests that led many firms to declare their support for racial justice and opposition to attempts to overturn the presidential election.
On Friday, executives from more than 170 companies -- including Dow, HP and Estee Lauder -- joined the corporate push to protect voting access not only in Georgia but in states across the country, writing in a statement that “our elections are not improved when lawmakers impose barriers that result in longer lines at the polls or that reduce access to secure ballot dropboxes.”
“There are hundreds of bills threatening to make voting more difficult in dozens of states nationwide,” the companies said in the statement, which also included signatures from the CEOs of Target, Salesforce and ViacomCBS. “We call on elected leaders in every state capitol and in Congress to work across the aisle and ensure that every eligible American has the freedom to easily cast their ballot and participate fully in our democracy.”
But as major corporations speaking out about Georgia’s controversial voting law discovered earlier this week, deciding when to step in, how far to go and whether to follow up with actions, can be fraught.
On Fox News Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp, R, compared early-voting rules in Georgia to other states and defended the measure. “They’re not going to get back on board because they’ve been pressured by their board of directors, who have been pressured by these activists. And there’s nothing I can do about that.”
He also said: “They’ll have to answer to their shareholders. There’s a lot of people that work for them and have done business with them who are very upset,” and said that “We are not going to back down when we have a bill that expands the opportunity for people to vote on the weekends in Georgia.”
After initially mild criticism of the measure, which was signed into law last week, companies scrambled to issue more forceful statements. James Quincey, the CEO of Coca-Cola, described the bill as “wrong” and “a step backward.” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian offered up an abrupt change in tone, calling the legislation “unacceptable” and contrary to the company’s values.
Those statements won guarded praise from activists - as well as calls for more concrete action. “Delta’s statement finally tells the truth - even if it’s late,” Nsé Ufot, head of the activist group New Georgia Project Action Fund, said in a statement.
But companies have struggled with growing expectations from the public and employees that they take stands on importantsocialissues, forcing corporate leaders into positions on issues they’d probably prefer to avoid, from Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem to the “bathroom bills” that targeted transgender people to President Donald Trump’s statements about voter fraud in the 2020 elections.
Last summer, it was the Black Lives Matter protests, when many companies made clear their support for racial justice.
And now: voting rights.
At a time when public faith in a number of institutions - the presidency, Congress, the electoral process and the media - is faltering, many Americans continue to look at big companies and entrepreneurs with admiration.
“The whole idea of companies getting involved in political issues, it’s all pretty new. They prefer to stay above the fray,” said Bruce Barry, a management professor who teaches business ethics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “But now they are getting religion on these issues, including voting rights.”
For weeks, activists and civil liberties groups had been complaining about the proposed changes to Georgia’s voting laws - long before companies took serious notice. At first, the corporate reaction was mostly muted. The Georgia U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a statement expressing “concern and opposition.”
But on Wednesday, an open letter from 72 Black executives seemed to open the floodgates. The letter said the new Georgia voting bill would make it “unquestionably” harder for Black voters in particular to vote. The letter also said, “The stakes for our democracy are too high to remain on the sidelines.”
Executives from the companies that made Friday’s statement acknowledged these leaders, saying they “stand in solidarity with voters and with the Black executives and leaders at the helm of this movement.”
“What we have heard from corporations is general statements about their support for voting rights and against voter suppression. But now we’re asking, put those words into action,” Kenneth Chenault, managing director and chairman of venture capital firm General Catalyst and the former CEO of American Express, who helped organize the letter from the Black executives, said in a CNBC interview.
The letter probably provided cover for other executives to take a more forceful stand, said Doug Schuler, a professor at Rice University’s business school who studies the intersection of businesses and public policy.
“A lot of companies follow the leader. They don’t want to stick out,” Schuler said. “But now, it’s painful to stick out.”
The flood of corporate statements in recent days has stopped short of canceling projects or scaling back financial commitments in Georgia.
Microsoft, for example, has not changed its plans for a major hub in the South’s economic capital - despite the company’s president, Brad Smith, issuing a list of problems with the new Georgia law, which supporters said was needed to shore up confidence in the state’s elections but critics said would make it harder for many people, especially minorities, to cast ballots.
The potential backlash from lost jobs and investment often grabs politicians’ attention, such as in 2016 and 2017, when sports franchises, business leaders and LGBTQ activists rebuked North Carolina for a law that banned transgender people from using public bathrooms that matched their gender identities. The NBA moved the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans. PayPal said it would no longer add 400 jobs and invest $3.6 million in a new center in the state. Other companies said they put expansion plans on hold.
In 2015, the cloud computing firm Salesforce pulled the plug on a big expansion in Indianapolis after the state legislature passed a bill that would allow businesses to deny services to same-sex couples.
But one year later, Salesforce was back, deciding to go ahead with a $40 million investment and 800 new jobs in the city. Company executives said their decision was not an endorsement of the state’s policy, but they pointed to a change in the law that no longer overrode local rules, such as in Indianapolis, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Hollywood companies, which do a lot of business in Georgia, have stayed largely quiet since the controversy arose. While several entertainment personalities have suggested they would undertake a boycott - including “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill and the “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold - corporate entities such as Disney, Netflix and NBC Universal have not commented. ViacomCBS issued a statement opposing the law.
Georgia has emerged as an important production hub to go with Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver. Tyler Perry, who as owner of a large studio in Atlanta is one of the entertainment industry’s key employers in the state, spoke out against the law but cautioned against a boycott.
“As some consider boycotting, please remember that we did turn Georgia blue and there is a gubernatorial race on the horizon - that’s the beauty of a democracy,” he said, referring to Kemp’s expected reelection bid in 2022.
Georgia’s sports teams - representing some of the most high-profile businesses in the state - have been quicker to speak out, mirroring what happened with sports franchises nationwide after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer.
On Monday, the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA became the first Georgia-based professional team to speak out against the law.
“This just came natural for us. We didn’t need to deliberate about it. We knew that we wanted to take a stand and put a statement out and we did it on Monday afternoon,” said Suzanne Abair, president and co-owner.
She said the decision to speak out was made jointly with co-owners Larry Gottesdiener and former Dream player Renee Montgomery.
“I was proud that we were the first professional sports team to speak out and I’m sure it won’t be the last time we’ll be the first professional sports team to speak out on issues like this,” Abair said.
In February, the three-person investor group acquired the Dream from Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the Senate by Kemp but lost to Raphael Warnock in a runoff.
Abair said the group grew interested in buying the franchise after watching the players’ actions in advancing social justice initiatives. Last season, players across the league, including the Dream, spoke out against Loeffler because of her stance against Black Lives Matter.
Following the Dream, the NFL and NBA franchises also shared statements addressing the new law. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the team leadership had communicated with state officials in recent weeks “to make voting easier, not harder for every eligible citizen. The Hawks said the franchise will “remain committed to endorsing steps that promote equality and encourage participation by all who seek to cast a ballot.”
Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler said in a statement that the organization saw itself as “a civic asset - not a partisan organization” - that is committed to “endorsing steps that promote equality and encourage participation by all who seek to cast a ballot.”
But there is little agreement on what actions to take.
Some activists have targeted Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, which is scheduled to be played at the home of the Atlanta Braves this summer. MLB declined to comment about the issue. President Biden has said he supports moving the game in response to the state’s new voting bill.
Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., one of the state’s two freshmen senators who was recently elected to office, suggested in a statement that corporations “disgusted like we are with the disgraceful Voter Suppression bill” should stop giving money to the state’s Republican Party, who supported the bill.
But Ossoff said moving the All-Star Game was going too far.
“I absolutely oppose and reject any notion of boycotting Georgia,” he said.