Strategic PR counsel is valued more than it’s ever been

This week’s statement by America plc on the voting laws issue was another example of the central role of communications in determining business strategy and shaping corporate reputation.

Merck's Kenneth Frazier is again leading the charge on corporate action on a charged subject. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Hundreds of companies, brands and corporate CEOs signed a statement that was published in a two-page advertisement in The New York Times and The Washington Post on Wednesday protesting "any discriminatory legislation" that would make it harder for people to vote.

The broad coalition was an impressive lineup of over 100 of the biggest and most iconic companies in the world, including tech behemoths Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon; brand icons Starbucks, Levi Strauss, General Motors and Under Armour; Bank of America and Wells Fargo; consulting giants McKinsey, Deloitte, EY, BCG, PwC and Accenture;  and the world's largest asset manager BlackRock.

Produced in light of recent voting legislation proposed by Republican lawmakers in states including Georgia and Texas, the statement was organized by former American Express CEO Ken Chenault and Merck’s outgoing CEO Ken Frazier. It noted that: “For American democracy to work for any of us, we must ensure the right to vote for all of us.”

The list attracted attention as much for those companies that didn’t sign it, including Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, which probably thought they’d attracted enough heat on this subject already. American Airlines, JetBlue and United Airlines did sign up.

One surprising absentee was the Jamie Dimon-led JPMorgan Chase. Dimon had covered the topic of purpose in his annual letter to shareholders and was instrumental in the production of the Business Roundtable’s statement in 2019 putting purpose on an equal footing with shareholder value.

“These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans,” said Dimon at the time, in his role as BRT chairman - language that was mirrored in the Times/Post ad statement on Wednesday.

The current BRT chairman, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, explained in a note to employees why the retail behemoth also hadn’t signed Wednesday’s statement: “We are not in the business of partisan politics. While our government relations teams have historically focused on core business issues like tax policy or government regulation, Walmart and other major employers are increasingly being asked to weigh in on broader societal issues such as civil rights.”

However, in leading the production of the statement, Frazier was quick to point out: “These are not political issues. These are the issues we were taught in civics.”

While Walmart didn’t sign this time, McMillon emphasized: “We do want to be clear that we believe broad participation and trust in the election process are vital to its integrity.”

Purpose pioneer Procter & Gamble, a signatory to the BRT pledge, also didn’t sign this statement, preferring instead to post on LinkedIn as follows:

“P&G believes voting is one of the most fundamental rights we have, and every citizen deserves the right to vote and to have their vote counted, respected and protected. Last fall, our CEO David Taylor stressed that elections are an important opportunity to ensure all our voices are heard, and this month added an expanded perspective on voter protection.

“This is an important issue not just for our democracy, but for P&G’s business. That’s why we are urging a bipartisan approach to any voting reforms, and are selectively supporting bipartisan efforts led by industry groups like the Business Roundtable that share a similar point of view that laws must safeguard and guarantee the right of citizens to vote and that unnecessary restrictions on the right to vote strike at the heart of representative government. And importantly, we are evaluating what we can do to further promote civic engagement.”

Companies stepping up and participating in social and political discourse and reestablishing trust in American institutions should absolutely be a non-partisan exercise. Plus, it shouldn’t degenerate into a box-ticking or shaming process or a forum for calling out brands or corporations that choose not to sign one statement or another – individual choice is imperative to protect.

And, of course, the words and statements must be followed up by real action and change.

But this week’s significant declaration by business is definitely another indication of the primacy of the issues we’ve been discussing in-depth at PRWeek and on these blogs in recent months. And the PR and communications functions at many of these companies have been leading decision-making and driving the consensus and coalition around the strategy and reputational implications, whether organizations signed this particular statement or not.

PR is on the front foot and valued by CEOs and C-suites more than it was two years ago when the Business Roundtable statement was released.

Indeed, it’s valued more than it has ever been.

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