Paul Holmes

Firms should take positions on issues early to avoid flip-flopping under pressure later

Firms should take positions on issues early to avoid flip-flopping under pressure later

I suppose you'd expect me to applaud Microsoft's decision to reverse its position once again and announce that in the future it will support civil rights for gays and lesbians.

After all, two weeks ago, I criticized the software giant for abandoning its previous commitment to equal rights in the face of pressure from right-wing religious groups.

But the announcement by chief executive Steve Ballmer that, "I've concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda," came just a little too late to help gays and lesbians in Washington state, who were denied equal protection under the law by state legislators.

More important, from a PR perspective, it simply added to the impression that Microsoft is yet another company that keeps holding its finger to the wind to figure out which way it's blowing. Cynics can be forgiven for wondering whether the next gentle breeze will force yet another flip-flop.

Perhaps Microsoft was surprised at the anger from within the civil-rights community - which had previously counted the Redmond, WA-based company as an ally - and from employees, gay and straight, who had been told that diversity was one of the company's core values. Or perhaps it simply lost patience with local pastor Ken Hutcherson, who called Ballmer a liar while taking credit for using the boycott threat to intimidate Microsoft.

Whatever caused the latest reversal, Microsoft is unlikely to get any credit from the civil-rights community because its position looks as if it were based on expediency rather than principle.

Other companies need to learn from this and formulate positions on these issues in advance of controversy because right-wing religious groups - emboldened by their role in last year's presidential election - will likely take a more active role in policy issues with implications for corporate America.

Pharmacy chains, for example, will have to decide how to deal with individual pharmacists whose religious beliefs prevent them from dispensing pharmaceutical products prescribed by physicians. (What's next, rebellious Red Lobster waiters who refuse to serve shellfish because Leviticus says eating crustaceans is "an abomination"?)

Pharma companies will face off against activists attempting to prevent the distribution of vaccines that would prevent cervical cancer because those vaccines work best when given to girls before they become sexually active and could be seen, according to the Family Research Council, as "a license to engage in premarital sex."

This is contentious ground, but companies may have no choice but to engage on it. Before they do, they should carefully think through their positions, and then display the resolve that Microsoft lacked.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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