Paul Holmes 06 Apr 2014 // 9:43PM GMT
There has been much hand-wringing—and some rage—on the right wing of American politics over the resignation of Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich, who found himself at the center of controversy after online dating site OKCupid and others decided to boycott the company over Eich’s donations to anti-gay marriage initiatives. I think we can dispense fairly quickly with suggestions that Eich’s First Amendment rights were somehow violated (he was not fired by the US Congress) or that he was the victim of a lynching (a charge white people should generally avoid unless they are actually being hung from trees). But issues surrounding the boycott—and Mozilla’s response to it—are of legitimate interest to PR professionals and so there are questions worth asking. The first question seems fairly straightforward to me: do consumers have the right to decide where and with whom they spend their money? Surely, the answer to that question is yes. And they have a right to factor in whatever matters to them. For some, that will be price alone, for others it will include customer service, and for others it will include the culture and values of the organization, its record on labor relations or environmental impact. The second question: is it legitimate for consumers to consider the political beliefs and actions of a company’s CEO in deciding how to spend their money? It’s hard for me to see any philosophical objection, or indeed any practical way to prevent them from taking such factors into consideration if they choose to do so. Similarly—and perhaps more significant in this context—employees have a similar right to choose who they want to work for, and if they have concerns about working for a bigot they must be free to act on those concerns. Public relations professionals will likely be more concerned with the questions that arise from consumer and employee concerns (and those of other stakeholders). The question of how companies should respond to this kind of pressure is dependent on two factors: the first is the commercial impact of any boycott, and the second—I would argue just as important—is the culture and values of the company. If consumers are refusing to do business with your company because of the political actions of your CEO, and if you are experiencing difficulties recruiting top talent for the same reason, surely you have the right to act. There is no obligation to accept executive behavior that results in heavy revenue losses or other competitive disadvantage (one might expect free market advocates on the right to understand this as a matter of fiduciary responsibility). But at the same time, I would argue that organizations have the right—and perhaps even the obligation—to consider their culture and their core values to inform their decision. If your company believes in and espouses non-discrimination, for example, that belief has to be part of the decision-making process—there are few things less edifying than an organization that believes in or stands for nothing. In this case, it’s hard for me to see how anything inappropriate occurred. Consumers exercised their right to spend their money as they see fit; the company looked at the likely economic impact and its own values and came to a decision that protected both. The market worked the way it’s supposed to work.