Some companies are unequivocally supportive of controversial political causes that are not even related to their industries — gay marriage, for example. Is corporate political advocacy, which goes beyond the responsible practices and community involvement of corporate social responsibility (CSR), appropriate in a business setting?
While corporations are engaging in socially responsible initiatives related to their industries or to benefit their communities (supporting organizations to help the needy, for example), some companies are going one step further, according to research from the University St. Gallen’s Institute for Business Ethics. These fearless companies are supporting controversial causes unrelated to their industries and perhaps even opposed by some of their customers and other stakeholders. The St. Gallen researchers, Florian Wettstein and Dorothea Baur, label this activism ‘corporate political advocacy’.
Gay marriage is currently the best example of this type of advocacy: this controversial issue is both ardently supported and vehemently opposed by significant groups within society, and has little direct relevance to the specific business activities of corporations (in contrast to, for example, environmental issues that are directly impacted by business activities and decisions).
Despite the near invisible impact on business of the issue of gay marriage, a number of corporations have taken a clear, vocal and usually progressive stance on the controversy. The behemoth coffee-chain Starbucks, for example, is actively involved in pushing gay marriage legislation in its home state of Washington. Google’s gay marriage campaign ‘Legalize Love’ is even more ambitious, targeting not only the United States but also countries such as Poland or Singapore, where a great majority of people oppose gay marriage.
Corporate involvement in politics is certainly not new. In their Journal of Business Ethics article, Wettstein and Baur outline the differences between the three categories of traditional corporate political activity — classical lobbying, ethical lobbying, lobbying for good — and corporate political advocacy.
Classical lobbying is the somewhat notorious behind-closed-doors pursuit of beneficial regulations and laws. Economic self-interest is the core driver of this kind of advocacy.
Ethical lobbying applies standards of conduct on what can be done in the name of the company’s success. The ultimate goal, however, is the same: advancing an agenda that is in the company’s best interests.
Lobbying for good is significantly different: the goal of lobbying for good is to push government to promote and adopt good public policy. There is still often a link between the company’s core business and the issue in question; however, the primary goal is not to promote the company’s self-interest, but rather to promote the interests of society.
Corporate political advocacy with its emphasis on society, would seem to fit into the wheelhouse of corporate social responsibility, but the fit is not as neat as it may seem. CSR concerns itself with how a company can act as a responsible citizen — in other words, the focus is on the company’s core activities. Corporate political advocacy, on the other hand, is driven by values. To integrate political advocacy into CSR, a more holistic view of social responsibility is required; everything a company not only does but also thinks and says must be rooted in core values. This holistic view of social responsibility allows corporate political advocacy that might even go against the wishes of the company’s stakeholders (including customers who disagree with the company’s stance).
Advocacy involves speaking out, not just simply doing no harm. For example, one Danish pharmaceutical company put limits on the distribution of one its drugs — in essence, deliberately restricting sales — because the drug was being used by American states for execution, contrary to the values of the company. The company demonstrated social responsibility, but not advocacy, since it has not taken a public stand against the death penalty.
Corporate public advocacy is not an easy decision. The company will be criticized for injecting ideology into business or alienating their stakeholders, although Wettstein and Baur note that these criticisms are a bit disingenuous: ideology is present in most business decisions, and critics of advocacy rarely have problems with alienating downsized employees.
Nevertheless, a company must be careful about the issues for which it chooses to advocate. Wettstein and Baur offer three guidelines for making such a choice:
In sum, corporate political advocacy is in truth the outcome of values and a historical commitment through its activities that culminates in the ‘right to advocate’. Only then will advocacy be credible.
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