We're at a business ethics tipping point. This summer, the Business Roundtable — representing CEOs from top companies in the United States — met in New York City to redefine Milton Friedman’s classic profits-and-shareholders-first doctrine, which has underpinned the mindset of business leaders for decades. Their gestures towards new, socially conscious values for corporate responsibility was lauded around the world.
Since then, however, the tone has changed. The collapse of WeWork's plan to go public resulted in a stream of pessimistic realism coming from Wall Street—further instigated by insecurity over the future of many aspirational, but underperforming, "unicorn" tech companies. Now, some voices are clamoring for the return of shareholder and profit-first business values.
The problem worsened as brands come under scrutiny for a perceived inauthenticity and are being accused of "pride-washing" and "green-washing."
Being woke for the sake of being branded as woke has further alienated many brands from their audiences—and from the issues that are actually in their power to alleviate.
But recently, examples of under-the-radar brand activism and self-regulation are indicative of a more positive trend. They represent a shift towards brand accountability that aligns with established brand values, despite potential short-term losses. Brand purpose and responsibility are here to stay, but it might look different than you think.
Of all the companies represented in the Business Roundtable, an unusual suspect emerged as an example for socially conscious decision making: Walmart.
The company’s bans on the sale of assault rifle ammunition and e-cigarettes made headlines and drew positive attention to the retail giant — which is now poised to instigate further change within its company and beyond.
By facing the issues of gun violence and the health hazards of vaping Walmart was able to act in a decisive way that also aligned with its brand statement: helping people live better. The actions showed a self-awareness of what Walmart had a responsibility and capacity to do, regardless of potential financial and reputational blowback.
Genuine brand purpose and responsibility require that a brand first recognize the power it yields to influence and change consumer behavior. It also involves answering some key questions: What behavior or issue is a brand uniquely qualified to impact? Where can it be a leading force of change?
As PR professionals, we have to serve as advocates for finding the honest answers to these questions, not just the woke answer of the moment. And we can direct brand communications to where they can have the most impact on customers and society.
Another example. In July, more than 200 companies — including Google, Apple, Citibank, Coca-Cola, and General Motors — signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to increase protections for employees from discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
This show of support from the country’s biggest brands could show judges that reform is welcomed by the corporate world. This was not pride-washing intended only for the month of June. It was a prolonged, coordinated effort.
This invitation for more oversight and employee protections, as well as Walmart’s choice to prioritize customers over shareholders, challenges shareholder and profit-first values in favor of considering all the stakeholders affected by corporate policies.
The statements look less like marketing campaigns and more like unified action and leadership supported by strong communications.
There is an urgent need for businesses to address issues like climate change, employee rights, gun violence and more. But for brands to make a difference, there is a need for genuine purpose that goes well beyond flashy advertising campaigns and photo-ops.
It involves taking action to help solve the social and environmental issues that affect them. Ensuring that our approach to communications, leadership and action is directed towards these objectives is the only way to prove we have genuinely moved past the age where profits and shareholders come first.
Laura Emanuel is VP and director of public relations at the Brownstein Group.