Heads of Leading American Corporations Speak Out Against President: Part Three

Part three of a four-part article on the response of top American business leaders to the president’s support of white supremacists.

By DAVID GELLES, August 20, 2017 for The New York Times

‘Many Sides,’ One Voice

Last weekend, as white nationalists protested the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, chief executives were paying close attention to the president’s response. Among those watching was Kenneth C. Frazier, the chief executive of the drugmaker Merck and one of dozens of executives who had agreed to advise Mr. Trump on economic issues.

Kenneth C. Frazier of Merck

Mr. Frazier disagreed with the president’s stances on immigration and climate change, but he believed it was important to have a seat at the table. Yet for Mr. Frazier, the son of a janitor and the grandson of a man born into slavery, the president’s remarks — in which he blamed the violence on “many sides” — were too much to bear.

On Monday morning, Mr. Frazier said he would step down from Mr. Trump’s manufacturing council. “As C.E.O. of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism,” he wrote.

The president took to Twitter, lacerating Mr. Frazier and attacking Merck, bluster that alienated more chief executives. By the end of the day, the chiefs of Under Armour and Intel had dropped off the same advisory group. The following morning, three nonprofit business leaders also quit.

As the manufacturing council fell apart, another presidential advisory group was also tottering. The Strategic and Policy Forum, a group with chief executives of some of the country’s biggest companies, held a conference call and agreed to disband.

The reaction from business leaders extended well beyond the confines of the presidential advisory councils.

James Murdoch of 21st Century Fox

James Murdoch, the chief executive of 21st Century Fox, pledged to donate $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League. The gesture was all the more remarkable because Mr. Murdoch is the son of Rupert Murdoch, a staunch supporter of Mr. Trump, and because his company operates Fox News, known for its favorable coverage of the president.

“What we watched this last week in Charlottesville and the reaction to it by the President of the United States concern all of us as Americans and free people,” the younger Mr. Murdoch wrote in an email to associates. “I can’t even believe I have to write this: standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists.”

Technology companies severed ties with white supremacist groups. Google and GoDaddy dropped domain registrations for far right publications. Facebook deleted articles that celebrated hate crimes. Spotify took down music by white power rock bands.

Howard Schultz of Starbucks

And in Seattle, Mr. Schultz held a town-hall meeting for more than 1,000 employees where he condemned bigotry and called for unity. “I could sense the anxiety,” he said. “I felt a need to create a safe and loving environment.”

All week, the business world’s actions went beyond the donations to charity and pledges to plant trees that once defined corporate social responsibility.

“For a long time, corporate social responsibility was a buzzword marketing tool, walled off within an organization,” said Alan Fleischmann, president of Laurel Strategies, an executive advisory firm. “Now it has to be central for the C.E.O., part of their everyday responsibility and leadership.”

The Cost of Speaking Out

Kevin Plank of Under Armour

Kevin Plank, the founder and chief executive of Under Armour, the athletic apparel maker, built a brand that celebrates diversity, sponsoring athletes like the basketball player Stephen Curry and artists like the ballerina Misty Copeland. Yet when asked to serve on the president’s manufacturing council early this year, Mr. Plank agreed, voicing his optimism about Mr. Trump.

His star sponsors made their displeasure known. “I strongly disagree with Kevin Plank’s recent comments in support of Trump,” Ms. Copeland said. Mr. Curry also expressed his distaste for the president.

So on Monday night, when Mr. Plank stepped down from his advisory role, he might have thought his troubles were over. Instead, Mr. Trump’s supporters have risen up, calling for a boycott of Under Armour.

“The leaders of corporate America have demonstrated the courage to call out something that is unacceptable,” said Mr. Walker of the Ford Foundation. “But speaking truth to power can come with huge costs.”

Because companies have inherently diverse customers and employees, taking a stand can be a no-win situation for chief executives. For every employee, investor and customer they make happy, they may well make someone else unhappy.

When Pepsi this year released an ad featuring Kendall Jenner offering a police officer a soda in the midst of an apparent Black Lives Matter protest, the condemnation was swift. Two years earlier, Starbucks drew wide ridicule when, as part of an effort by Mr. Schultz to start a national conversation on race relations, baristas were encouraged to write “race together” on coffee cups.

This article will be concluded in one more installment.

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