Diana Marszalek 06 Mar 2018 // 12:15PM GMT
In the nearly three weeks since the Parkland, Florida school shootings, a remarkable number of companies (20-plus and counting) have stood up to the gun lobby, taking actions with concrete, bottom-line impact.
So why now and not after any of the equally mind-numbing mass murders we’ve had in recent years — massacres like those in Las Vegas, Charleston, Orlando or Sandy Hook?
Largely, it's because of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School kids who, after seeing 17 people gunned down on Valentine’s Day, have emerged to lead the gun control charge, according to CSR experts.
“They have basically accomplished in two weeks what all these gun control groups have been trying to do for years," said Chris Allieri, principal of the agency Mulberry & Astor. "They have single-handedly forced companies to make these decisions they have been avoiding,”
On top of that, they did so with lightning speed.
Within four days of the shooting, survivors launched the Never Again campaign. Virtually non-stop since, they have rallied business, advocated for stiffer gun controls, inspired a nationwide student walkout and organized the March For Our Lives on March 24 in Washington, DC. “They are organized, they are pissed off and they are not going away,” Allieri said.
The result: Some of America’s biggest businesses including airlines, car rental companies and major retailers have taken stands in the gun control debate, and done so in ways that include directly distancing themselves from the immensely powerful NRA — a risky prospect when you consider the group's pull. With five million gun-rights advocates as members, the pro-gun lobby enjoys fierce support like few other special interest groups, and wields tremendous political clout.
For some of the businesses, the actions, which started when the relatively low-profile First National Bank of Omaha dumped an NRA-branded Visa card, have had real dollars-and-cents consequences.
Atlanta-based Delta, for instance, lost up to $50m in tax breaks that Georgia lawmakers yanked after the airline dropped an NRA discount. After pulling assault-style weapons off the shelves and raising the gun-buying age to 21, Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack took to TV, saying he expected backlash, but was willing to risk it as his company didn’t want to be part of the ongoing mass-shooting story any longer.
Those ramifications make clear that there are a range of factors beyond the student movement at play in these decisions. Much of our recent coverage of corporate communications has focused on the need for companies to respond to political and social issues, particularly as consumers aim to fill the void created by the current political climate.
Industry watchers, though, believe that companies are more comfortable taking these risky decisions because of the simplicity of the student message.
“They aren’t representing a constituency other than themselves in a way that’s untarnished by time or politics or corporate or economic interests,” said Julie Jack, an APCO Worldwide senior director. “That makes them a very powerful voice in the marketplace.”
In addition, the students have proved themselves to be particularly savvy. Relatively affluent, and incredibly plugged-in, Parkland students may well understand the power of social media in ways that survivors of similar crimes did not. After the shooting, for example, survivors took to platforms like Twitter and Facebook, expressing their grief, lobbying for stiffer gun control and boldly taking on opponents, including President Trump.
Leveraging these platforms has given the nascent movement tremendous reach, but it has also given them a voice — the voice of teens who may not be old enough to vote, buy guns, or have money in the bank, but who rallied in earnest after living through one of the 10 worst mass shootings in US history.
“No matter who you are or what side of the political spectrum you sit on, this was an issue that impacted our youth in an emotional and violent way and it’s relatable,” said Alison DaSilva, an executive VP with Porter Novelli’s purpose practice. “Add to that youth standing up and demanding change, and it has created an unprecedented sense of urgency with companies.”
The Parkland activism has also likely set the course for future corporate action, communicators said.
“I feel like this isn’t going to be the first and it’s not going to be the last for brands standing up for their values,” said Fenton group president Scott Beaudoin. That they are doing that with concrete action is a step forward for many, he added. “It’s not just standing for something. It’s standing up for it, for what’s core to what they value in the world.”
APCO’s Jack agrees. “I think this is going to increasingly push them beyond their comfort zone,” she said. “And there are going to be decisions every company needs to wrestle with not only given their consumers and public demand that’s happening, but from their employees as well.”
Others, however, warn that companies shouldn’t jump into causes, no matter how noble, that don’t really fit who they are. The reason Dick’s move, for instance, had such impact is because the action is directly tied to the company's business, which includes selling hunting gear, Jack said.
“We want to prevent companies from feeling like they have to jump on a bandwagon of an issue,” DaSilva said. “Companies need to look at issue and ask if they have an authentic reason to engage in it,” she said. Evaluating whether an issue is relevant to a business, impacts stakeholders and is aligned with corporate values and purpose are three steps to doing that, she added.
For many brands that have plunged into the gun control debate, the process also included looking inward and reassessing what partnerships with the NRA and the like say about their stands on the gun issue, and whether relationships with the organization are seen as tacit approval of their politics and position.
No doubt, it's muddied. Delta, for example, has gone on record as pro-Second Amendment; As far as gun control is concerned, that's another issue; Delta said it viewed dropping the NRA discount as a move toward neutrality. Since Parkland, that has become an increasingly popular place to be.
“When you look at what happened in Florida, that was not political. Companies aren’t picking sides,” DaSilva said. “It’s no longer about Democrats and Republicans. But about safety in the school and the role gun control has in preventing shootings in the future.”