Businesses today face increasing pressure from their stakeholders, from employees to customers to investors, to take on a “political” role and speak out on the pressing social issues of the day. But companies that do so often walk a fine line and struggle to navigate how to do it right. Two recent media stories, those of Disney and Bud Light, are illustrative of how this can play out, and what the challenges can be to both speaking out and staying silent.
For Disney, it began last year when CEO Bob Chapek initially refused to take a public stance on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, prompting outcry from the LGBTQ+ community and leading to an employee walkout. Chapek later changed course and opposed the bill, but his response was seen by many as too little too late and despite its mildness, led to a series of escalating retaliations from Gov. Ron DeSantis. When Disney brought back Bob Iger to helm the company late last year, the returning CEO dropped any attempt to remain neutral, calling DeSantis’s actions “not just anti-business, but anti-Florida.” Since then, Disney has refused to back down, announcing that they are hosting an LGBTQ+ workplace summit at Disney World in Florida in September and a “Pride Nite” event at California’s Disneyland next month.
Disney’s left turn to the progressive side signals that Iger understands that companies and their CEOs can no longer sit on the sidelines on political issues that are relevant to their business. Their role as business leaders carries with it a responsibility to speak out on issues that matter for their stakeholders and to stand by their positions, backing up words with action. Meanwhile, the unfolding saga of anti-trans backlash against Bud Light and the response from Anheuser-Busch highlights the pitfalls of corporate activism when a company fails to commit to their cause.
On March 13, Bud Light introduced a can featuring trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Intended as a nod towards inclusivity from a brand intent on attracting younger beer drinkers, the move predictably drew immediate backlash from anti-trans conservatives, who took to social media to express outrage and threaten boycotts. And rather than stand by their campaign, Anheuser-Busch, Bud Light’s parent company, backed away entirely, going dark on social media for two weeks before releasing a statement that read in part, “we never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” The result so far seems to be that they have won back none of their detractors on the right, while irritating many on the left who supported their initial position.
These two incidents are a dual lesson in corporate activism: one of corporate strategy but also of materiality. As a business operating in Florida with a number of LGBTQ+ employees, Disney was expected by its stakeholders to pick a side on the “Don’t Say Gay” controversy – and to say nothing was seen by many as siding with DeSantis. Bud Light, by contrast, was not asked to take a position on trans issues but rather waded into the debate of their own accord in an attempt to capitalize on the cache of a trans activist – and then was not prepared to deal with the fallout. Subsequent attempts to appease both sides succeeded only in angering everyone.
As HMI found in our report 21st Century Business Leadership and the Rise of Corporate Activism, when deciding to speak out on an issue, it’s important for a company to consider how it fits in with their overall strategy. Does this issue align with our corporate values? Can we meaningfully influence the issue? Will our stakeholders agree with speaking out? But as expectations grow on all sides for companies to take a political stand, many businesses will not have the luxury to sit it out. Silence has a cost. And the true leaders will be those with the courage to stand by their convictions.