Few issues are more divisive in American culture than gun rights and gun laws, including what types of guns should be available on what terms to the public. The recent mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, has catalyzed young people and gun safety advocates to demand action to control the availability of assault-style weapons in particular. The National Rifle Association, its supporters in state and federal government, and gun manufacturers disagree – citing rights granted under the U.S. Constitution.
With elected leaders seemingly unable to bridge the divide, some corporations are finding themselves pulled into the middle of the heated debate. A few companies reacted quickly following Parkland, ending business and marketing relationships with the NRA. A few others voiced support for the NRA and second amendment gun rights. The majority of American businesses have not announced any actions but are wrestling with how and if to respond.
Employees – particularly Millennials – are carefully watching what their companies do, if anything. Lists have been developed by both sides of the debate of companies that support the NRA, those that do not, and those that have said nothing.
Pressure on companies from both sides is likely to intensify in the weeks ahead. A “March For Our Lives” is planned in Washington, D.C., on March 24. Congress is debating several options, such as strengthening background checks, raising the minimum age for certain gun purchases, and possibly training and arming teachers, as the President has proposed. The gun issue could influence the outcome of November’s midterm elections. The Parkland tragedy has activated a generation of digitally-savvy young Americans – promoting the #NRAboycott and #BoycottNRA hashtags.
A position of saying nothing – which used to be the safest response for CEOs when confronted with controversial social issues – is harder to maintain. Employees are increasingly demanding their employer to take a position. And some companies are feeling the need to speak out based on their customers.
But speaking out is not a panacea, either. The NRA remains a strong and powerful organization and there has been a backlash against companies that have ended support for the NRA or financial discounts for NRA members.
Legislators have threatened to kill legislation beneficial to these companies. NRA supporters have called for boycotts of businesses ending NRA support and are promoting the #TweetYourNRAMembership hashtag. Conservative online sites such as 2ndVote are recommending alternative companies and brands when companies they disagree with take a more liberal stance.
As companies assess whether to speak out or take action, here are a few things to consider:
- Does your company feel it should publicly advocate for societal change? If your CEO hasn’t been vocal on other issues, should you start with one that is so polarizing? More broadly, companies that do business with the NRA or guns have a reason to be involved; other companies will want to carefully consider their position.
- Who are the constituencies that will be affected by your decisions – customers, shareholders, board members, communities where you operate, employees? Have you reached out and listened to their point of view?
- Is this issue core to your values as an organization? Many companies have spoken out on immigration, or gender equity, because attracting talent and promoting diversity and inclusion are embedded in their cultures and essential to their business success.
- What are the pros and cons? As with any issue, assess all likely outcomes of any statement or action. Be prepared for different scenarios.
If you decide to speak out or take action, here are a few things to remember:
- Decide whether this is a CEO or company statement. If a CEO has not spoken out on other high-profile policy issues, consider whether this is the right one for him or her to start.
- Use human, non-corporate language in any communication and include direct references to your values and purpose as an organization.
- The “why” is very important. Any action – either for or against – must be supported with specific reasons and a clear position. Statements that attempt to have it both ways are generally ineffective, confusing, and may be subject to social media ridicule.
- Talk first to your employees and customers, if they are impacted. Be prepared for push back from these groups, who may speak to media or use social platforms to express their own views.
- If your company has marketing and commercial materials related to gun financing or NRA member discounts, be prepared to pull or change these materials.