The Trump business backlash: Corporate ‘woke-washing’ or new era?

Dozens of businesses took action against US President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers after the US Capitol siege. Does it herald a new era for corporate America?

Trump has long boasted about his business acumen and corporate connections, but company after company cut ties with him following the violent siege at the US Capitol by his supporters [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

The press releases and statements hit like a blizzard. Just days after supporters of United States President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol in a deadly attempt to block the certification of election results, many in corporate America made it known they had had enough.

Social media platforms banned the president, universities revoked honorary degrees and the Professional Golfers’ Association of America pulled its championship from Trump’s golf course. Banks said they would no longer lend him money, and New York City announced it was cutting business ties with the Trump Organization.

More than a dozen companies, meanwhile, suspended political contributions to Republicans who voted against certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Dozens more froze all of their political donations. One company — Hallmark — asked two lawmakers to give the money they received back.

Twitter banned President Trump following the riot at the US Capitol that left multiple people dead [File: Joshua Roberts/Illustration/Reuters]

Apple and Google Play pulled Parler, a favourite social media platform of white supremacists and others on the far right, from their app stores. Amazon pulled services for Parler, effectively shutting it down.

Some applauded the unprecedented wave of actions – corporate America finally got “woke”. Others questioned whether it was too little too late — or simply a performative gesture meant to protect profits.

But what experts and analysts agree on is that the last 13 days could represent the beginning of real change in the US business community, one that will require far greater work and will force companies to look inward and make changes that better reflect the concerns and values of their employees, consumers and other stakeholders.

‘Long overdue’

The business community’s strong reaction to the Capitol riot is something that is “long overdue”, said Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get these kinds of comments earlier,” Argenti told Al Jazeera. “When there is an attack on the nation’s capital and people die, then it’s almost impossible to rule out the notion of responding. So I think [business leaders] were at a point where companies had to take a stand, they were getting heat from their employees, from their customers, and just from their own conscience.”

Really taking a stand though will require more of a commitment from businesses than the largely symbolic action of temporarily halting campaign donations after the election has already been held, experts say.

I don’t think it’s any accident that this particular wave of moral consciousness came just after the Georgia runoff, where suddenly the Democrats are going to have power in the executive and Congressional branches.

by Mary-Hunter McDonnell, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School

It is easier and less risky for companies to suspend political donations just after an election cycle ends when they typically give less money to politicians anyway. It’s also easy to denounce Republicans after learning Democrats would control the White House and both houses of Congress after emerging victories in the Senate run-off elections in Georgia this month.

“I don’t think it’s any accident that this particular wave of moral consciousness came just after the Georgia runoff, where suddenly the Democrats are going to have power in the executive and Congressional branches,” Mary-Hunter McDonnell, associate professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told Al Jazeera.

“Firms also tend to behave themselves a lot more when they’re worried about political intervention,” she added, citing calls from progressive Democrats for Biden to implement stricter regulations and more government oversight over big business.

“Depending on what happens with that regulatory front, and what happens when the Democrats hold onto the House and Senate, you could see companies go back to their old ways as soon as they don’t feel threatened anymore.”

Employee activism

McDonnell nevertheless feels that actions taken by companies this month do represent genuine moral consciousness- a development she attributes to a shift “away from shareholder primacy to stakeholder primacy.”

“A lot of the corporate control activism that you see is coming from increased employee collective action,” she said.

Employee activism has exploded in recent years, with workers pressuring companies to get involved in social causes and other issues that affect their workforce and communities.

Companies responded to the violent and chaotic scenes of Trump supporters storming the Capitol by cutting ties with the president and Republican lawmakers who refused to certify the election results [File: Ahmed Gaber/Reuters]

While it is unclear whether pressure from employees at Big Tech firms like Facebook and Twitter ultimately pushed these companies to kick Trump off their platforms (many companies reportedly insist it was not), there is no denying that workers are pushing the needle on social issues.

“Employees have come up with a lot of new ways to get their voices heard by a company board and top management,” McDonnell said. “At the same time, there’s a lot of research in recent years that has provided really solid evidence that firms that fight for the values of their employees are rewarded in all kinds of market-relevant ways by those employees” including in recruiting, retention and productivity.

Pressure from employees to take a stand has especially grown in the Trump era. It was on display during the height of the #MeToo movement, early on in the coronavirus pandemic, and especially during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people.

Companies big and small condemned the killings, and some made commitments to invest in Black communities and work towards racial equity within their workforces.

Corporate America is only loyal to capitalism. In the 10 days before this administration ends, they're taking this person off of platforms that he's been using for years to a great detriment.

by Mimi Fox Melton, CODE2040

Mimi Fox Melton is the acting CEO of CODE2040, an organisation that works for the proportional representation of Black and Latinx people at all levels of leadership in the tech industry.

“We saw a huge uptick in interest for our programmes after George Floyd’s murder,” Fox Melton said.

“A lot of the companies that reached out actually put money out and made a commitment towards racial equity in internship hiring at least,” she told Al Jazeera.

But as the protests died down, some companies walked back some of those commitments, including asking CODE2040 to release them from certain aspects of their pledges or change the language from “racial equity” to “employee engagement” or “diversity”.

It is a reality that Fox Melton fears may play out in the business community after Biden takes office and the Capitol siege fades from public attention.

“Corporate America is only loyal to capitalism,” she said. “In the 10 days before this administration ends, they’re taking this person off of platforms that he’s been using for years to a great detriment.”

Still, Fox Melton hopes the organising that is already being done by employees, groups like CODE2040 and consumers can pressure business leaders to live up to their commitments and also “dissuade companies from making similar platitudes in the future that they really don’t mean”.

‘In it to win it’

The US has seen meaningful initiatives from corporations, even in recent months. Alongside Black organisers and groups, companies were instrumental in get-out-the-vote efforts, says Ashley Spillane, the president and founder of Impactual, a social impact consulting firm. Companies provided information about how to vote, and how to vote early, as well as encouraged people to become poll workers.

“That was a huge factor in driving participation and historic levels but also making sure that people were safe and secure while participating in the election during a pandemic,” Spillane told Al Jazeera, noting that recent research from public relations firm Edleman found businesses are more trusted than NGOs, media and government.

Companies supported get-out-the-vote efforts, showing the power they have in advancing important social issues if they are committed to them [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Ultimately, employees and customers are watching whether corporations stand by their statements and actions, Dartmouth College’s Argenti said. If businesses don’t, they risk being accused of “woke washing”.

While some incidents — like the Capitol siege — warrant responses from companies regardless, Argenti said, companies should let three questions guide their approach: Does the issue align with your company’s strategy? Can you meaningfully influence the issue? Will your constituencies agree with speaking out?

If a company answers ‘yes’ to all three questions, then it’s time to take a stand, Argenti said. If a business answers ‘no’ to two or more, then it may be best to wait.

And once a company makes a commitment, it needs to see it through, says Argenti. “Once you’re in it, you better be in it to win it.”

Source: Al Jazeera