DACA and the age of corporate activism

Not long ago, the worlds of politics and business were separate. No longer.

While much of the tech world and the gadget-loving public has been transfixed by Apple’s rollout of the iPhone X, I’m more struck by something Apple CEO Tim Cook did in September, just before the phone was announced. 

That’s when Cook wrote a long, heartfelt memo to employees pledging that he and the company would "work with members of Congress from both parties to advocate for a legislative solution that provides permanent protections for all the Dreamers in our country."

It was a reference to DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects about 800,000 people in the U.S. who entered the country as undocumented immigrants when they were children. The leaders of other big companies, including Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft, have likewise pledged their support for Dreamers.  

Why do I find that so remarkable? Because not so very long ago, the worlds of politics and business remained rather separate.

Corporations would lobby on issues that mattered to them directly, tweaking regulations and tax codes behind the scenes to secure competitive advantage or protect against onerous measures. More often than not, government engagement would come through the auspices of some faceless industry body, technocrat and bureaucrat uniting in the most loveless of marriages to pore through the minutiae of rules most people didn’t know existed and certainly wouldn’t care if they did. 

As a lifelong politico and career lobbyist, I have helped companies understand how to express their interests in ways that complements the wider political agenda, translating business-speak into something at least partially resonant to political actors, or vice versa.

We live in an age where the worlds of business and politics have collided rather spectacularly to form the 45th presidency. Whatever one’s political loyalties or views are on an extraordinary nine months in Washington, Donald Trump’s ascendency was meant to usher in an era of business-sense to the emotive world of politics. On whether this has happened, I will reserve judgement.

Perhaps the most striking result of this period, however, is the dramatic politicization of corporate America. In the early weeks of the Trump presidency, many executives were inclined to keep their heads down, lest they find their company in the crosshairs of an angry early-morning tweet. Others, if invited, took their seats on one of the new president’s industry councils on the assumption that it was an opportunity to influence policy, whether or not they agreed with the politics.

Some have led from the front all along taking their cues from the likes of Cook, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Howard Shultz of Starbucks, to throw themselves into the debate, particularly on issues of immigration and race. Others have been nudged or forced into the fray by the weight of external pressure from employees, shareholders, or general public sentiment. As Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman said as the president’s Business Council collapsed following the Charlottesville riots in August, "Virtually anyone running a public company in that group could not deal with the pressure from their constituents."

To some extent, corporate leaders are playing catch-up to public attitudes. In our recently published Authenticity Gap research, we found the expectation on companies and their leadership has changed dramatically in recent years, and not just in the U.S. Almost 75% of consumers surveyed around the world believe companies should play a more active role in the societies in which they operate.

Of course, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon; any company worth its salt has a substantial "corporate responsibility" agenda and many have prospered by leading the charge on the issues such as environment protections, workers’ rights, or fairness on the supply chain.

But consumer expectations have shifted. No longer can a company pride itself on corporate citizenship solely by dint of behaving responsibly in its operations. Now we expect companies to play an active role in political and civic society in its widest sense. Indeed, in the U.S. alone, almost 70% of our survey respondents believe companies should take the lead in the exchange of ideas or culture when the government sets policies that support isolationism.

It isn’t enough for the CEO to take a back seat on these matters. Some 78% of people surveyed believe the behaviors and integrity of the top executive reflect those of the company the CEO leads. As we have seen in recent months, employees, investors and customers increasingly demand that top management demonstrate leadership on politically charged issues through their own words and actions.

These changes in public expectations are challenging the received order of company behavior. The very best companies are nimble enough to know when to act and when not to, using their values as a guide to divine a true course during these politically febrile times.

Whether it is Puerto Rico, DACA, or whichever political pivot-point comes next, for a CEO to stand on the sidelines is increasingly riskier than taking the political stage. In this era of corporate activism, every CEO needs to be willing to speak up and speak out.

Dominic Pendry is SVP and senior partner at FleishmanHillard, focusing on corporate, financial services, and crisis communications.

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