Sensible, neutral corporate activism efforts are possible. As Florida and the rest of the southeast assess the damage from Ian, even Disney appears to be getting it right.
Long before basements had finished drying or residents finished digging out, a series of companies had honorably announced plans to send supplies and support to Florida to help people and communities put themselves and their lives back together in the wake of the fourth-largest recorded hurricane ever to hit the state.
Fox News reported that this list includes Duke Energy, Lowe's, Target, The Home Depot, Tractor Supply, Walmart and Wells Fargo. And while it doesn’t appear to be going as big as it did for hurricane Irma a few years back, Disney too has increased its donations to supportive charities in the area.
Good on all of these companies. Now it would behoove them, especially Disney, to take careful note of the public response to these interventions, and to compare that response to the blowback they’ve received from other forays into public activism.
My guess is that the companies won’t see anyone at all protesting their actions or demanding boycotts of their companies. Not even the most frugal of shareholders will object to the outlays. No state officials will seek legislative reform to curb their efforts; no pension managers will have to consider dropping investment in them. No one at all will shop elsewhere in disgust.
Instead, the companies will gin up for themselves reservoirs of good will and potentially draw in new customers, all without offending anybody. They will do this because these donations to help ravaged and hurting communities are non-partisan and non-political. They do not unnecessarily insert the corporations into any contentious political or social issues; they do not offend the sensibilities and values of millions of current and potential clients, investors, regulators or legislators.
This kind of non-partisan activism also does not violate the fiduciary duty of the corporate executives who undertake them, as there is no personal policy preference self-dealing anywhere in sight. It’s just corporations doing good by “giving back” (in a favored virtue-signaler locution).
You see, political-crusader CEOs, it really is possible to support communities in non-partisan, non-contentious ways that are consistent with fiduciary duties of objectivity and neutrality. And because it is possible, it is required: this sort of activism, and no other.
It was certainly possible for these companies or others to have gotten their responses to Hurricane Ian wrong. They could have followed the vice president into illegal and immoral discrimination by directing their donations to “communities of color” and, somehow, women – because of “equity,” of course. Almost miraculously, they kept their efforts free of racism or any other stain of partisanship, acting in the spirit of the little boy who sent his piggy-bank jar down to Florida “because they have a hurricane and their office is gonna go down and they need more stuff.” For that they are genuinely to be congratulated and asked to continue down this sensible, duty-fulfilling, neutral path.
Herewith, then, some suggested guidelines for corporations should they attempt to return to their fiduciary duties and get themselves out of the paths of hurricanes that they’re whipping up for themselves by taking sides (well, taking a side – the left one) in pretty much all of the culture wars.
Step one: Ask yourselves, “Will taking this stand offend huge numbers of our investors and customers?” Then quickly realize that you don’t know, and that probably no one in your comfortably lefty C-suite has any idea either. Hire a set of conservatives and libertarians on whom to test your ideas. By conservative I don’t mean Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney and the ghost of Happy Rockefeller. Real, honest-to-goodness center/right Americans. If they think that the guys at The Dispatch are really on to something, you have the wrong crowd.
Step two: If your just-like-they’re-real-people conservative caucus warns you that your idea is very partisan and contentious, or even possibly quite illegal, drop it. Or, if you insist on pretending that somehow your conservative caucus is chalk full of extremists and monsters, conduct a poll using a polling company that doesn’t have a track record of underestimating Republican turnout in contentious elections. If more than, say, 10 percent of the respondents think your idea is offensive and partisan, drop it. (Maybe 10 percent of the country – five percent from each side – can be written off as extremist. But if you want to write off a third to half-or-more of the country as extremists, you’re just revealing your own profound partisanship and therefore your own inherent – systemic, even? – breach of fiduciary duty.)
Step three: If you still really, really want to do the thing that you now know will be very contentious, you might be tempted to claim that you have to do the partisan thing because “science” declares that it’s necessary. You’re almost certainly wrong about that, but if you want to explore it fully, seek out scientists who have questioned your scientific conclusion and come to fully understand their scientific objections. If those objections have sufficient validity to cast the science of your position into reasonable doubt, then your claim that “science makes you be partisan” has been falsified.
Step four: If the science you are citing stands up to that test, go to other experts who agree with that science but nonetheless oppose your position to make sure that you’re right that science forces you into the partisan stand. By way of example, “carbon dioxide load is a factor in determining the Earth’s temperature” by itself, tells no one anything about the necessity for or appropriate speed of decarbonization. If you can’t defend every step between the true science and the contentious position, policy or action, you are not justified in wading into partisanship and controversy.
Step five: Reject any claims that you have to take a partisan position because some of your customers, employees and investors will be offended if you don’t take that position. Remember that for every contentious political or social position, there are partisans on both sides. If you admit that you have to take a partisan position to avoid offending the partisans, then you also have to recognize that there are other partisans who take the exact opposite position who you also have to not offend. Otherwise you’re just taking a partisan side, which violates your fiduciary duty. So, “but we have to agree with the partisans or they will be offended” is an incoherent position for an objectively run company to take.
Step six: To borrow from Monty Python, there is no step six. Just these five simple steps can save your company from huge partisan missteps and perhaps yourselves from eventual rustication when those missteps end up costing the company, as many of them have already demonstrably cost companies that provide entertainment.
Genuine kudos to all of the companies that have set aside their dangerous ideological agitation to help everyone who suffered at the hands of Hurricane Ian. Now keep it up.